The mysterious, world-wide decline in populations of frogs, toads and salamanders - which has been puzzling and alarming biologists at least since 1989 - might be the result of increased solar radiation leaking through a thinned ozone shield. When researchers announced that possibility two weeks ago [in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences], many news reports left the alarming impression than an increase in ultraviolet radiation was clearly threatening the world's amphibians. In fact, no such long-term increase has been observed.
Moreover, the biologist who made the headlines believes that another cause is just as likely: An amphibian-killing fungal disease has been spreading throughout the world's aquatic habitats and is known to be killing off at least one species.
And, the Oregon State University scientist says, it is possible that both factors are at work, not to mention still other causes resulting from various forms of environmental degradation.
``We know it can't be as simple as UV because some of the species that are declining lay their eggs in shaded waters,'' says Andre R. Blaustein. ``There's got to be other causes.''
From the frogs' point of view, the difference between being fried by UV and
wiped out by fungi is doubtless acadmic, but not for us. We thinned the ozone,
after all. Of the two possible simplification of the story, the one which
caught on was the one which pandered to apolcalypticism - and a sense of human
power and importance.
I will put Chaos into fourteen lines
And keep him there; and let him thence escape
If he be lucky; let him twist, and ape
Flood, fire, and demon - his adroit designs
Will strain to nothing in the strict confines
Of this sweet order, where, in pious rape,
I hold his essence and amorphous shape,
Till he with Order mingles and combines.
Past are the hours, the years of our duress,
His arrogance, our awful servitude:
I have him. He is nothing more nor less
Than something simple not yet understood;
I shall not even force him to confess;
Or answer. I will only make him good.
Such beliefs are taken to their logical and hilarious conclusion by the
Church of the SubGenius (though admittedly no one has every figured out if
they're entirely serious). It nicely illustrates points made below: despite a
lack of formal hierarchy and coordination, SubGenii make ingenious and
persistent use of both the symbolic media (especially the
and the aural media (public-access cable, Church-produced videos which
circulate among members) to spread the Church across the United States and
beyond. See Kinney, and the Bible
of the Church, The Book of the
``Just as the people of our century were the first to find beauty in a machine - even in a well-polished piece of a machine - so the new physics was the first science to provide images of spectra and tracks of particles which can be hung on the wall like pictures.''Images sometimes migrate from the symbolic to the aural culture, shedding their meaning along the way. Fractals, for instance, after beginning on the border between mathematics and physics, became a folk art of the computer-literate, and then a decorative motif among the devotees of ``alternative'' music, appearing prominently among the icons of the well-publicized Lollapalooza festivals. The last transition was eased by the resemblence between some fractals, tie-dyes and patterns common in psychedelic art. Indeed, I was told fractals were psychedelic art by people wearing and selling tee-shirt showing Mandelbrot and Julia sets at the 1992 Lollapalooza.
- Jacques Barzun, The Energies of Art, p. 356.
The related tradition of blending science and edifying non sequiturs has a peculiar and interesting history, not the least because it has been encouraged by eminent scientists - not those published by Bantam, who strangely enough tend to uncompromising rationalism, but such luminaries of the early twentieth century as Sir Arthur Eddington and Sir James Jeans. In books like New Pathways in Science and Philosophy and Physics they first floated such staples of pop science as the notion that ``the new physics'' ends the conflict between science and religion, proves the existence of God, the soul, free will, and other metaphysical treasures which were as pearls cast before swine as far as the old physics was concerned, and that relativity, or the uncertainty principle, requires a radical revision of the concept of scientific knowledge, if not its complete abandonment. That other physicists reached no such conclusions - much less criticism by philosophers, such as L. Susan Stebbing's Philosophy and the Physicists - did nothing to uproot these notions.
Recently, chaos theory, non-equilibrium thermodynamics
and other sciences of complexity have spawned a similar outburst - about the
deaths of reductionism, of ``linear'' thinking, yea, even of ``the Cartesian
ideal of knowledge as privileged in and by the Western philosophical
discourse'' - with Prigogine in a role analogous to that of Eddington or Jeans.
Le roi est mort, vive le roi!
Pursuit of the Millennium is a fascinating history of European
apocalyptic movements from the later Hebrew prophets through the early
seventeenth century; I have borrowed his ideas shamelessly. (I have not yet
had a chance to read his Cosmos,
Chaos and the World to Come, where he attempts to find the roots
of apocalypticism in Zoroaster's modification of archaic combat myths.) Some
of the later mutations of the idea are traced by
For the role of mysticism in furthering the progress of science, see Needham, pp. 86-100, and the references therein.
I am forced to note that psychedelics are endemic in Silicon Valley and its cultural satellites; but by their own account, these people are into drugs for the same reason they are into computers, viz., kicks.