In May of this year, I had the opportunity to give a talk to my department on the matters that concern me. What would I say? How could I pack 20 years of learning, Do the Math writing, and recent perspectives into a one-hour talk for my physics/astrophysics colleagues and for students just beginning their professional journeys? How could I have the biggest impact without coming off as being nuts?
As with many things we do in life, I have mixed feelings about the result: things I should have said; things I could have said differently/better; answers to questions that could have been less clumsy. But overall it seems to have worked. While people were not beating down my door to have further conversations, almost anyone I ran into from the department in the weeks that followed would bring it up—indicating that they had been ruminating on the content and expressing further curiosity. It helps that these are people who have known me for years in another context, but it was still a relief to not simply be dismissed as having veered from the one important path: physics research.
Below is a video capture of the event over a zoom channel. The slides are shown well, but the audio quality varies depending on my movements (could be worse). Questions from the audience are hard to make out. Zoom does amazing things for noise suppression, which also applies to audience reactions (applause, laughter). But hey, you get what you pay for.
The theme of the talk is very similar to that of the shorter video I shared recently. It is also reflected in an article featured in a special sustainability issue of The Physics Teacher in September (below is a PDF of the final paper). So I’m “making a lot of hay” out of this approach, of late.
I recently watched a Netflix documentary series about fundamentalist Mormons, exposing along the way a number of beliefs that seem bizarre from the outside, but that are accepted as perfectly normal within their insular community. Though the term “cult” is not used in the series, it is hard not to see the sect in this light. It would be nearly impossible to convince any one of its members that they are deeply in error, in part because doing so threatens the salvation that has been dangled in front of them. If they are pure enough in their faith, resisting external evils that try to knock them off the one true course, eternity is theirs. In today’s world, one need not look far to find other groups whose beliefs are at once bonkers and seemingly immune to attack.
Hearing the perspectives of ex-members of these cults never fails to be fascinating, providing a window into how they could have swallowed all the lies and goofy stories. Also important to know: it is possible to escape, and to suddenly see the magnitude of the deception. Once out, there’s no going back.
Cult beliefs look insane from the outside, so why don’t its adherents detect the lunacy? Why is it so hard to convince them of their folly? One possible answer—as a tangent—is that cults offer a deeply satisfying sense of identity, belonging, and (seemingly) unconditional acceptance/support within its community that we have otherwise lost in today’s society, but that in times past were central offerings of tribal life to which humans are intimately adapted. It is remarkable how quickly tribal cohesion instincts of mutual help resurface as soon as core elements of civilization (provision of food, water, electricity, for instance) fail in a natural disaster. We’ve still got it, underneath the veneer.
Leaving that for another time, let me now condemn myself in the court of civil opinion by making the charge that most people on Earth are members of a dangerous cult whose central beliefs seem every bit as bizarre to one who has escaped the thought prison, but that are seldom questioned and even fiercely defended. This post offers ten heretical statements that seem obvious to me, but tend to produce emotionally charged reactions by members of the cult of civilization. Watch yourself, now. Continue reading →
Readers of Do the Math will be familiar with my line of argument that economic growth as we know it is destined to end. It was the second post of the whole series, and the basis for one of the more popular posts recounting a conversation I had with an economist. I also adapted the same reasoning into Chapter 2 of my recent textbook. Already, I sound like a broken record. Yet I write this update to announce the publication of this idea in a “real” article in Nature Physics. Unfortunately, Nature Physics does not allow open access for Comments, but this Share link should allow you to read the content without a subscription. If the link does not work, here is a link to the PDF. Anyway, that’s all. Please share with anyone you think may be interested.