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Rick's Corner: Who cares about this stuff, anyway?

Now, before going on, there’s a message that I’d like to address, which can cause a lot of interference in our thinking. So people will say, why should I care about this stuff? Let those crazy scientists do their job, and I’ll do mine. And, fortunately, we don’t have to sit and talk at the same dinner table. I’m going to call such a fellow Mr. W, which will be short for Mr. Who-Needs-It.

Dear Mr. W., I hope you will give me a chance to respond to your questions. First, we’re all different, and we think differently, which is good, and everyone is free to care or not about science, just as they are free to care or not about the Earth, or about any topic.

Yet if I decide that I’m not interested in Hurricanes, or even hearing about them, then I’m ruling out an important part of human experience from my awareness. But in fact, I’ve never met anybody who has a block against talking about the major phenomena of the weather. Why is that?

You see, for most topics of world importance, people who live in the world are instinctively curious to know what is going on, and there are many levels of understanding available to people about these interesting stories. One guy might just understand that tornadoes are dangerous twisting things in a storm, while another might know about their wind speeds and their — —, and another knows about their motion patterns, …, all the way to a weather scientist who uses a mathematical model to simulate tornadoes on a computer.

All these levels are connected and related, and all these guys could comfortably sit at a dinner table where the topic of a new tornado would be discussed.

But why does the situation change when it comes to math; why does it polarize people, and send them to different dinner tables? I can’t of course speak for everybody, but I want to suggest that part of the issue is simply that of a language barrier.

Suppose that in a language of mathematics, some scientists are saying things which could have a profound effect on how we understand the problems of life and our part within it. Now among the people who do care about the — – – which is the majority of people, no? – how many of them do you think would want to know at least something about what mathematical science has to say about the Earth?

But then what happens to that interest and human curiosity, when they are faced with the language barrier, and feel outside of the terms of that discourse?

Let’s consider a helpful analogy. Suppose that a big discovery about biology was made in China, and people in China were all talking about it – in Chinese, of course. Now let’s pretend, for the sake of argument, that there were no newspapers available. Pretend that everybody in China only spoke Chinese, and everyone in the U.S. only spoke English, and there were no newspapers available.

Based on watching T.V.s and other evidence, we started to figure out that a big scientific discovery was make there. Now I bet we’d all be curious. But what if there was never any hope of breaking through the language barrier to find out the story, other than spending years learning Chinese, and then going on a — (translation trip). It could feel hopeless to ever find out about what it is about. So people might start to think that that they don’t care, and just turn off the channel completely, rather than feeling the ongoing frustration of wanting to learn about something which is not available to the language that they think in.

In reality, of course, we have translators, and the new travels quickly from one country to another – language is not a fundamental barrier to learning about what goes on in other parts of the world.

What I’m driving at is that we need more and better translators from the language of science to that of everyday thinking. At this point it’s insufficient for human needs to have an insular professional society of scientists. We need to cultivate a whole new league of Explainers.

Note, also, that this outreach effort is part of the broader public mandate of science, which is not an independent abstraction, but is sustained by the broader basis of society.

(Discovery in medicine.)

It’s abundantly clear that the problems which are accumulating for science are not merely academic. Just the other day, for example, …

"Stochastic" Lake Petri Net

Rick here, from Portland Gear Works, checking back in with you. Last time (link) we talked about the basic ideas of so-called Petri nets, which we illustrated with a Lake ecosystem.

Recall that there were three species, Snake, Frog and Butterfly, and three processes, which we gave the nicknames Thor, Evan and Minerva. At every meal, each process eats a certain number of items of its input species, and then emits a fixed number of its output species.

Thor: Evan: Minerva:

Then I asked the following question: if you start out in a state where we have a given number of each of the input species, then how do the population counts evolve, over the course of time, as the feeding processes are activated.

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