Thursday, 18 December 2014

Entanglement - separation - tolerance - dogma

Just over eighty years ago, piqued by Rutherford's dogmatic statement that nuclear energy would never become real, Leo Szilard realised the principle of the chain reaction. He patented his discovery, but assigned the patent to the British Admiralty so that, with war threatening, it be kept secret.

I was reminded of this, and by the dreadful coincidence that the rise and fall of Nazism and the big developments in nuclear physics marched in step, by viewing the segment of Jacob Bronowski's Ascent of Man entitled Knowledge or Certainty. I turned back to the Bronowski with Jim al-Khalili's two-part series on quantum physics fresh in my mind, mainly to see how the presentation of information compared. As I had guessed, I found that for all the increased sophistication of TV forty years on, there was little to choose between the two. (Mind you, that is a subjective impression which would need an independent exam to prove.)

Al-Khalili certainly scored on entertainment value and the quirkiness of some of his visual analogies. To be fair, the programme did not aspire to much more. He has shown in other programmes that he thinks about the philosophy of science and its relationship with the everyday world, notably in his conversations with other scientists in Radio 4's The Life Scientific (thoroughly recommended to those who don't know it already).

Bronowski's ambition for his series was "to create a philosophy for the 20th Century which shall be all of one place. One part of that is to teach people to command science - to have command of the basic ideas of modern science, so that they can take command of its use" (from the series' programme notes).

It is not surprising that finding a link to Ascent of Man through Google turns up quotations. Bronowski is very quotable, eminently so in Knowledge or Certainty. The final, partly improvised, sequence set in Auschwitz is widely reference and is compelling, but it is all the more so in the context of the complete carefully constructed episode.

I would pick out the following. After Bronowski has outlined the insight of Werner Heisenberg, he said:

The "principle of uncertainty" is a bad name. Within science or outside of it, we are not uncertain; our knowledge is merely confined within a certain tolerance. We should call it the principle of tolerance [...] All knowledge, all information, between human beings can only be exchanged within a play of tolerance. 
The principle of uncertainty fixed once for all the realisation that all knowledge is limited. It's an irony of history that at the very time that this was being worked out there should rise under Hitler in Germany and tyrants elsewhere, a counter-conception: a principle of monstrous certainty. When the future looks back on the 1930s it will think of them as a crucial confrontation of culture as I have been expounding it - the ascent of man - against the throw-back of despotic belief to the notion that they have absolute certainty.

In the last decade or so, that monster certainty has arisen again, embraced by religious zealots to a degree which has led to genocide. This is not yet on the industrial scale of Hitler, Stalin or Pol Pot but the fear is that we have not seen the end of it.

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