Have you ever had the experience of noticing a certain pattern in a wild variety of contexts, a pattern that occurs so consistently that you feel it simply has to mean something … but you have no idea what? I say “in a wild variety of contexts” to rule out cases of patterns that occur within the same context, even though, at the time, you may have no idea of the cause. I remember back in the early 1960s, when I was in junior-high school, I went on a “geology jag”. I spent several months reading books on geology, geophysics, and volcanology that noted with perplexity the mysterious – in the early '60s – pattern whereby volcanic activity tended to be concentrated around the circumference of, e.g., the Pacific Basin, what we today call the “Pacific Ring of Fire,” and similar places.
I write this the morning (13 February) after Diane and I had a wonderful, long, and calorie-filled dinner with two very senior people associated with the Keck Telescopes and the other telescopes atop Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii. It was a memorable evening that still resonates with me. One reason that conversation sticks with me -- aside from having discussed dark energy, blue-sky (black-sky?) projects for exploring the Proxima Centauri system, gamma-ray bursts, gravity waves, black holes, etc., etc. – is that one of the subjects we touched on banged down pretty hard on one of my hot-button issues: scientific illiteracy in general in the US and the western world, and the need for informed, literate teaching of science to non-scientists. I mean science per se, not just astrono
Let's find out which!
Once in a while, for better or for worse, the past comes back to haunt you. An instance of the “better” part of this assertion occurred with me recently when I saw a public TV documentary on mathematics. Much of the documentary revolved around what the physicist and mathematician Eugene Wigner described as the “unreasonable effectiveness” of mathematics in the natural sciences in an essay of that title. Wigner’s famous essay was written around 1960. I first encountered it as an undergraduate math and physics – and, significantly, philosophy – major at Wichita State University in Wichita, KS, during the late 1960s. It stuck around in the back of my mind to haunt me at graduate school in physics about ten years after it was written. But, finding little or no sympathy f