Thursday, April 24, 2014

Data on How Much Professors Work

Finally, someone is tracking how much and what professors do all day. Here's a graph for "How much do professors work each week"?
This fits with my experience. If anything, after becoming full prof I have worked more, not less. It's because I love doing what I do and the security of tenure actually gives me the chance to do it more.

(So ... maybe I shouldn't be so worried about the time crunch of becoming chair after all? Something tells me that bar may not be true for all institutions!)

The graph that subdivides each day shows that my experience is slightly different from others'. In my experience the teaching bar is more than 50% and the service bar is closer to 20-25%. But then again, the research bar and the teaching bar can blend together in some cases for me. The bottom line is, for a complex subject, this feels accurate to me:

Monday, April 21, 2014

Quotes from Infinity and Perspective

Haven't done this in a while, but Harries has some quotes I want to remember, so here they are in my digital memory banks:

"Anamorphosis [the process in which changing your perspective reveals a previously hidden message or image] thus would seem to function as a metaphor for the world, which first presents itself to us as meaningless and confusing; only a change in point of view reveals its deeper order and meaning ... " -- p. 96

"But what Descartes must have found more significant is that such effects rest on a precise science. Magic has been replaced with optics; the demons that were supposed to have aided the magicians have been replaced with mathematical calculation." -- p. 109

"Reflection on this theological difference, more especially meditation on the infinity of God and his distance from finite human knowers, leads to a renunciation of the claim that the human being is capable of seizing the truth. Meditation on the infinite power of God thus readily leads to a certain cognitive resignation. A conceptual link thus joins late medieval nominalism and mysticism to Renaissance or Mannerist skepticism." -- p. 129

The Condemnation of 1277 in its critique of Aristotle allows the new hypotheses against Aristotle's belief that the earth does not move: "[God] is both the most remote and the most proximate cause." -- p. 133 "To save the omnipotence and freedom of God, the Condemnation of 1277 challenges both hierarchy and order. ... a collapse that paves the way for the more homogeneous conception of the cosmos that we meet almost two hundred years later in Cusanus and that was to triumph with the new science." -- p. 134

"In this connection it is interesting to note that the impetus theory, which appeals to the momentum of the moving object, first appears in a discussion of the effectiveness of the Holy Sacraments -- in a Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard by Franciscus de Marchia, in 1320." -- p. 135

"The climb up the mountain thus not only leads to a recognition of the human power of self-trancendence, but at the same time fills Petrarch with a profound sense of homelessness. Curiosity and homelessness belong together." -- p. 159

Paul III began the counter-reformation with the Council of Trent the same year that Copernicus's main work appeared: "Or is there perhaps a more intimate connection between the two, between a science that in the face of theological reservations has regained confidence in the human ability to know and a Church that, confronted with challenges to authority, had reformed itself? We should, at any rate, keep in mind that it was only in 1616 -- seventy-three years after its appearance -- that the Church placed De Revolutionibus on the Index, where it remained until 1822. At first, opposition came more from the Protestant camp, including from Luther himself." -- p 230

Quoting Cicero: "In such a manner the philosophers may perhaps have been confused when they first beheld the world. However, as soon as they saw that its motions are finite and equable and every single one organized in a precisely calculated order and in immutable consistency, they were compelled to understand that there is someone in this heavenly and divine mansion who is not merely an inmate but a ruler and supervisor and, as it were, the architect of this huge work and monument." -- p.232

"The very fact that the Copernican system could effectively challenge the Ptolemaic, that Luther could challenge the traditional faith, that a Paracelsus could offer a new science of medicine intended to overthrow that of the ancients, shows to Montaigne the lack of clear, compelling evidence to settle such matters. Crucial to each skepticism is a thought he shares with Copernicus: the insight into the eccentric position of the human observer and knower. But, as I pointed out, part of the humanist faith of Copernicus is the confidence that this place is not a prison. And to this confidence Galileo adds another certainty, that the inadequacy of our senses need not be accepted as a natural condition: we can take steps to improve ourselves." -- p. 268

"For one, [nature] must be sufficiently stable. If nature were an ever-changing chaos, we would never get hold of it. If, for example, the way gravitation worked constantly changed, neither Kepler nor Newton could have formulated their laws. But what reason is there to believe that nature and her laws will not change? Time is thus one source of cognitive dread, threatening to undermine Cartesian confidence in the reliability of the cosmos. Another condition is that nature cannot be infinitely complex. It must be possible to interpret it as a manifold built up from a manageable set of elements we can comprehend." -- p. 288

"For as Nietzsche saw, the process that celebrates its triumphs in modern science and technology is necessarily attended by the specter of nihilism." -- p. 314

"A tendency toward self-displacement, toward self-decentering, would seem to be inseparably bound up with human freedom." -- p. 322

"A whole series of Copernican revolutions may have called into question our position at the center of the cosmos, but that questioning has not robbed us of our home." -- p. 324

Book Review: Infinity and Perspective by Karsten Harries

Reading this book I kept thinking of Owen Barfield.  Like Barfield, Karsten Harries combines history, science, philosophy, and theology into a coherent whole. Like Barfield, Harries is critical of modernism and postmodernism. But unlike Barfield, Harries finds a place for technology and even modern objectivity, and in my opinion more clearly points to what it might mean to "put things back together." Not only does this book remind me of Owen Barfield, I think in some ways it's actually better than Barfield. It's a challenging but rewarding read, like a steep Alpine trail (another metaphor used in the book itself for the process of knowing).

Harries starts with the theological/scientific speculations of Nicholas of Cusa, showing how a theology of the infinity of God led to the hypothesis of the infinity of the universe. (Bruno gets his own showing showing how derivative his ideas were from his predecessors like Nicholas ... and Harries depicts Bruno as a general irresponsible hack of an academic, not exactly the same picture as the 20-minute cartoon hagiography of Bruno on Cosmos). It was theology that inexorably led to a view of the universe that knocked down the old Aristotelian understanding. The theological speculations of the nominalists paving the way for Descartes, Copernicus, and Galileo. (Similar again to the 20th-century story told in Naming Infinity.)

Barfield's problem is that he stays in the middle ages. In his book Saving the Appearances, Barfield (if I recall correctly) attributes the preface to Copernicus's book to Copernicus himself, and takes the theme that all science is doing is "saving the appearances" as the theme of his book, drawing a line back to Copernicus for validation. This always bothered me. I like some of what Barfield does with this but it has always seemed too extreme. Harries points out that the preface was written by Osiander, not Copernicus, as a sort of fig leaf or olive branch, and Copernicus himself wrote as if the scientific observations were reality, not just appearances, like I assume a scientist would (as did Descartes, as did Galileo). Harries finds the right balance between expressing the incompleteness of our knowledge (the ways in which hypotheses indeed only "save the appearances") but also noting that some hypotheses are better than others, a distinction I don't remember finding in Barfield.

At the end of the book, Harries argues that modern objectivity allows us to step outside our own perspectives and worlds for a bit, but that if continued this motion will lead to nihilism (this sounds almost exactly like Walker Percy in Lost in the Cosmos). Harries instead proposes that we return to earth as our special, unique home -- something I've found that my own writing has tried to do. Harries calls this a "postpostmodern geocentrism" and a new Copernican revolution or recentering of the universe. What Barfield calls "putting things together," Harries identifies as a homecoming. In the end, the story of the history of theology and science is that, after a long journey, the prodigal returns.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Alan Lightman on Faith

"And here we come to the fascinating irony of the fine-tuning problem. Both the theological explanation and the scientific explanation require faith. To be sure, there are huge differences between science and religion. Religion knows about the transcendent experience. Science knows about the structure of DNA and the orbits of planets. Religion gathers its knowledge largely by personal testament. Science gathers its knowledge by repeated experiments and mathematical calculations, and has been enormously successful in explaining much of the physical universe. But, in the manner I have described, faith enters into both enterprises." -- Alan Lightman (physicist, science writer, atheist) in a book review of Why Science Does Not Disprove God

Monday, April 14, 2014

Book Review: Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones

The book that this biography of Jim Henson reminds me of most is one I just read, Furious Cool (a biography of Richard Pryor). Although the Henson biography is longer and more focused on the procedure of showbiz, it feels like Furious Cool in that the biographer drops away and the subject of the biography takes center stage in a thoroughly entertaining telling of the story of someone's life. Brian Jay Jones hits exactly the right level of detail and pacing. Like Furious Cool, Jim Henson: The Biography tends toward the hagiographic at times and ultimately is mostly about the surface of things. It doesn't reach the heights of surprising you with what Henson's life means. But it covers all the bases and does exactly what it's supposed to.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Coffee Bean Wall Shows the Science and Color of Coffee

If you're vacationing in Orlando at the newly opened Cabana Bay Hotel (Universal Studios), you might accidentally run across some colorful science in the Starbucks there. They have a "coffee bean wall" that shows the progression of beans, from green to red (peeled) to light and dark brown (roasted less vs. more). It makes for a nice-looking wall but the science of coffee is behind it. Well, I don't know what's actually behind it because I haven't been there but maybe I'll fix that on a future vacation. For example, the dark-roast beans have less caffiene because the heat has burned the caffiene right out of them. [Thanks to Theme Park Insider for the photo tour that showed this.]

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Book Review: Many Dimensions by Charles Williams

The second book by Charles Williams shows many of the unique qualities that stood out in the first, and it is better written and easier to read, yet it just gets three stars from me while the first got four. There's a lot to like here: a supernatural artifact that is a character rather than a MacGuffin; a resolution that is more along the lines of virtue and spirit than it is about cleverness and brawn, in fact, that is more about weakness than it is about strength; and some very interesting theology to chew on behind the typical thriller twists and turns, so that it feels more like George MacDonald than anyone else despite some superficial differences. But it's not as much of a step forward from the last book as I feel like it should be, and so for all the plusses I just listed it seems like Williams's sophomore slump. (Complicating all this is that I haven't been able to read like I should for a few weeks and that fragmented my appreciation of the narrative, which can't be helped.)

Behind all this is a fascinating story that I'm convinced, in the right hands, could make a great movie that has many ordinary Hollywood aspects but is done differently, in ways that make the cliches fresh again. But I can't see Hollywood ending it like this ends (and I like very much how this book ends). Still, in the right hands, Charles Williams may be able to enjoy a movie renaissance. For now, the books will remain our little secret.

In addition: Owen Barfield's ideas show up very clearly in one passage identified with Lord Arglay (a protagonist). There's some deep thinking to be done about the evolution of ideas among the Inklings and Williams may have played a central role in that.