Democritus

AND THE RETHINKING OF HISTORY

Democritus, or fondly called the Laughing Professor, was the first person to theorize the existence of atoms 400 years before Jesus Christ and a millennia before the invention of algebra:

Nothing exists except atoms and empty space; everything else is opinion.

A thousand years before the invention of telescope and microscope, Democritus vividly imagined that all things are composed of tiny matters that are indivisible and indestructible. These atoms, in Democritus’ mind, are pointy and sharp if it is salty, slippery if it’s liquid, airy and whirling if it’s air atoms, and have hooks and barbs that govern the interaction between each atom.

Democritus’ line of thought was ‘easy’ (too easy, even), clear, reasonable and practical (to the point that, in some sense, humorous), without spiritual fringes akin to Plato’s line of thought who believes that the physical world mirrors the godly world. It’s no wonder that Plato hated Democritus’ ideas so much that he required the burning of all his books. And perhaps hence, the beginning of our dismissal to Democritus’ sensibilities in thinking.

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When Carl searches for gods

I’m constantly perplexed by the science versus religion debates that seek differences and separations rather than symmetry, which is an attempt that feels more political than for humanity.

To many people, these dramatized scenes are mere entertainments. But to some people, the questioning of gods and religion is really a perpetual existential question. Whether that’s through historical records, the arts, the sciences, to search for god is to ultimately return to the question that nudges our very own meaning and existence. Because even with waves of solid scientific data, these numbers and fact can’t settle many uneasy hearts. Hence; the role of religion, stories, or even just imaginations, which is to reconcile with the unknown.

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Einstein’s Imaginations

“Imagination is more important than knowledge,” said Einstein; the man who endured years of telescoping into the unknown and meddling in the invisible fabrics of the universe, the mathematics and physics. We often disconnect math and the arts; the pure and the imagination; the objective and the subjective. Yet math, in the hands and minds of Einstein, came a bit like this: after hours and hours of rumination on math, he took violin breaks, and a little mathematical blessing comes in between the sweeping notes of music.

To anyone who assumes that different study fields are in separate pedagogical boxes; bless them, because they need to know Einstein’s idea of combinatorial creativity.

Einstein himself was never a child of prodigy. He not only skipped classes but grew to lament the German authoritarian school system that later defined his philosophies in learning. From elementary school to his university life, he picked and chose what he wanted to learn from the system. And the rest, he diligently studied at home by himself. Indeed, Einstein loved and much preferred self-learning and self-exploration ever since his uncle brought him books on math and sciences. In fact, he started tinkering with the idea of moving as fast as light –the seed of his groundbreaking special theory of relativity — at the tender age of 17 years old, when he had access to one of the best physics lab and a generous support from the more relaxed education environment in Switzerland.

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The Mythical Pythagoras

“Numbers rule the universe,” said Pythagoras. Living 500 years before Jesus, 900 years before the concept of zero was invented, and 1,700 years before the Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3) was brought to the West, Pythagoras laid out the critical foundation of geometrical connections – that a2 + b2 = c2 – and concluded the fundamental relationship between a right triangle and a square. Yet he is also most memorable for his conviction that numbers are separate beings that unlock the true nature of the universe; a kind of wonder that still rings true until now, if not stronger.

Just recently, I learned how the Indians and Sumerians used more practical math to solve mundane day to day problems, like trading issues and counting wages, the opposite of some Greek thinkers and philosophers who tend to glorify numbers as god-like. Yet what the Indians and Sumerians produced were maths that are more straightforward, cleaner, and accurate. The discovery of a Babylonian tablet gives us trigonometric table more accurate than any today and preceding Pythagoras’ by a thousand years. And it was these people who built ancient architectures that still blow our mind away and really tempt us to assume they’re aliens-made. An Indian science historian writer concluded that the Greeks complicate the practical and in doing so, missing the answer. It’s a controversial statement and even a bit bogus.

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The Priest’s Big Bang

If you’re sure about something, you don’t need faith. It’s when you have the doubts that faith kicks in. And that’s true in science as well as anything else. – Guy Consolmagno

Already arriving at peace with the magnetizing mystery in the interplay of science and religion, Guy Consolmagno can console himself, knowing there is a God and maybe, aliens, too. Yet to many of us who are used to running in the notion that science and religion can’t coexist, we might have forgotten that the foundations of science, too, are often laid out by religious scholars. In the 20th century, a historical achievement in astronomy was made by a priest when he proposed the Cosmic Egg – or now we call it the Big Bang theory, a theory akin to the Creation story.

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The Vatican Church’s Astronomers

Can science and religion meet; embracing each other like a soulmate, unveiling depths within each other?

For years, we are used to seeing debates, instead of duet, between science and religion, both in the popular media and public conversation, to the point that we believe the two don’t co-exist. A religious person fears scientific truth beyond humans’ senses. And a scientist is “too smart for school.” Yet Big Bang was proposed by a Jesuit. And algebra was written out by a Muslim scientist.

Today, we divide them like two conflicting poles, often times putting more efforts into pushing them apart than pulling them together, unwilling to find the resonance between the two.

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How Humboldt resurrected the word Cosmos

Etymologically speaking, cosmos derived from the Greek word kosmos that means order or world. But we don’t deliberately use this word to mean the holistic interactions within the universe until Alexander von Humboldt used it in his five-volume treatise Kosmos.

An obsessive note-taker, Humboldt traveled from Germany to South America to explore, observe, and record the minutia details of nature; from the ocean current in the coast of Peru, to the ruins of Inca, to the hostile Orinoco River in Venezuela where he named new species of plants and animals. Together with French botanist Aime Bonpland, they climbed one of the highest volcanoes in Equador, Mt. Chimborazo, to record changes in air pressures and temperatures, laying the foundation for future scientists to investigate the relationship between the living organisms and their habitat. He gave us a map of various vegetation zones, a color-coded map of terrain with its corresponding plants; perhaps the first of its kind, thus kick-starting the era of data visualization that we know and still widely used today.

Charles Darwin adored him, saying:

I am at present fit only to read Humboldt. He, like another sun, illuminates everything I behold.

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