The “open mind” conundrum

bible wheel

“Do not be so open-minded that your brains fall out.”

Variations of this quote have been attributed to a number of different people such as Richard Feynman, G.K. Chesterton, Richard Dawkins and Bertrand Russell. However, having recently debated a literalist Christian on this blog, I have realised that it sounds rather crude.

My detractor claimed that I don’t have an open mind, which is why I will never understand, let alone accept the assertions in the bible. In hasty retort I quoted the line that precedes this post.

So as I’m currently re-reading Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World – Science As A Candle In The Dark, I was reminded of that encounter in a chapter titled The Marriage of Skepticism and Wonder, which I think perfectly settles this conundrum.

As I’ve tried to stress, at the heart of science is an essential balance between two seemingly contradictory attitudes – an openness to new ideas, no matter how bizarre or counterintuitive, and the most ruthlessly skeptical scrutiny of all ideas, old and new. This is how deep truths are winnowed from deep nonsense. The collective enterprise of creative thinking and skeptical thinking, working together, keeps the field on track. Those two seemingly contradictory attitudes are, though, in some tension.

There, now everything’s clear as daylight. Thanks Carl.

The great explainer

It may be a little late to pay tribute to Richard Feynman on the anniversary of his passing in February 1988… or little early depending on how you look at it, but a man of such wit, charm and brilliance, is a man for all time.

Feynman, a theoretical physicist who won the Nobel Prize, made immense contributions to the field of quantum mechanics through his passion for science, but also had an equal passion for living life. I hope these two video clips gives you some idea of the type of man he was.

Back Tuva future

And now for something completely different [with apologies to Monty Python’s Flying Circus]…

My posts about music usually revolve around great guitar riffs, but today it’s about a different kind of music, one I presume many people won’t be too familiar with. Tuvan throat singing as practised by the Tuvan people of Southern Siberia in the region of Mongolia, is a very old art-form which involves producing one or more pitches of sound from deep within the throat.

One of the more accomplished practitioners of this amazing art is Kongar-ol Ondar who hails from Tuva and is a master of the khöömei style of throat singing (the others being kargyraa and sygyt). Ondar is relatively well-known in the West and has brought a modern touch of fusion to this old art with compositions such as this:

And even an attempt at rapping that has me re-appraising my antipathy towards rap music:

Kongar-ol Ondar has collaborated with Western artists such as Paul Pena and Bela Fleck. This collaboration with Bill Miller, a Native American, is simply astounding as it showcases the vocal abilities from two different continents and cultures.

However he does enjoy some light-hearted moments, such as in concert here with Bela Fleck and the Fleckstones:

If you listened carefully to the song, you will have heard a reference to Richard Feynman, the famous American physicist who shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965 with Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga for his work in quantum electrodynamics. Feynman also shared a keen interest in, and fascination of Tuvan throat singing, and is considered the “patron saint” of the informal group Friends of Tuva.

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out by Richard P Feynman

Richard Feynman (1918 – 1988) was regarded as one of the most brilliant theoretical physicists to grace the world. In 1965 he shared the Nobel Prize with Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga, for the independent work he did in quantum electrodynamics.
What some people would not know about Feynman, was his involvement in the Manhattan Project – the project conceived to build the first atomic bomb which eventually led to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. As you read the sections of the book where Feynman recounts how he moralised over his decision to join the project, one tends to appreciate why absolutist morality as favoured by the religious, is so undesirable.
The main theme of the book however is about why science is so great and why doubt is so important, not only in the field of science, but in all spheres of life. Ultimately, a wonderful collection of stories from the life of the great Richard Feynman, often amusing, and with a refreshing insight into how the world works. Feynman has effectively re-inforced the idea that finding things out, especially about the natural world, through curiosity and investigation, is accompanied by a great deal of pleasure. I can personally attest to that.
Notable Quotes:
If you expect science to give all the answers to the wonderful questions about what we are, where we’re going, what the meaning of the universe is and so on, then I think you could easily become disillusioned and then look for some mystic answer to these problems. How a scientist can take a mystic answer I don’t know because the whole spirit is to understand-well, never mind that.
You see, one thing is, I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers  which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of uncertainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here, and what the question might mean. I might think about it a little bit and if I can’t figure it out, then I go onto something else, but I don’t have to know an answer, I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is so far as I can tell. It doesn’t frighten me.