Saturday, September 27, 2008

McCain Shows His True Stripes

I had waited impatiently for the first debate between the two presidential nominees. Then the news came that McCain was backing out, ostensibly to rush back to Washington where he was desperately needed to help fix the looming economic crisis. In addition, McCain announced that he was suspending his campaign until the crisis had been averted.

Obama had called McCain to suggest that they get together to develop a non-partisan united statement on the economic crisis. McCain agreed, but then later in the day unilaterally decided he would forgo the debate and suspend his campaign, inviting Obama to do the same.

Obama rightly responded that Americans needed to hear from their candidates more than ever during this crisis, saying it would be a mistake to cancel or postpone the debate. Public opinion was quick to mount against McCain’s stance. The public doesn’t want their candidates to go into hiding, especially during a crisis.

Criticism of McCain reached an apex after he canceled his appearance on Late Night with David Letterman at the last minute. Letterman spent the first twenty minutes of his show last Wednesday lambasting McCain for backing out of his commitment and for halting his campaign.

After praising McCain as a war hero, Letterman delivered a relentless series of jabs at the Republican presidential nominee, saying that he wasn’t acting like the McCain he knew. Letterman also suggested that maybe McCain could put his vice-presidential running mate, Sarah Palin, on the campaign trail in his place.

To top it off, Letterman caught McCain in a lie when at the very moment McCain was supposed to be taping Letterman’s show he was actually getting makeup applied for an appearance with an interview with Katie Couric. Letterman told his producers to show a live feed of McCain interviewing with Couric. “I’ve got a question for you,” Letterman lampooned. “Ya want a ride to the airport?” He was referring to McCain’s excuse for pulling out as a guest, saying he had to rush back to Washington because of the economic crisis. He not only didn’t rush back that day, he didn’t leave until the following morning.

On Friday, McCain was having second thoughts about pulling out of the debate. He at first said his campaign would be halted, he would not debate, and he wouldn’t even leave Washington until the crisis was over. The crisis was far from being over when McCain changed his mind and decided to debate after all. Maybe he just decided that he had made a strategic error.

When the first debate was over, it was clear to me that McCain was the weaker debater. Although he made some of his points, he didn’t rattle Obama on national security or foreign policy issues. Obama, in fact, seemed to have a better handle on foreign policy matters than McCain. And that is supposed to be McCain’s strong point.

A national poll after the debate indicated that Obama and McCain virtually tied on the foreign policy topic, but Obama was a clear and decisive winner on the home front. He continues to outpace McCain on economic issues. Obama presented a clear view of how he would handle the financial crisis as president while McCain continued to relate anecdotes about things that have happened to him in the past, the distant past.

Although pundits generally agreed that the debate was a tie or a slight Obama victory, the first debate and the McCain fiasco leading up to it should bring into focus who really is better prepared to be the leader of the free world. McCain showed himself to be ill-prepared, a vacillator, and even a liar in the days before the debate. And he failed to redeem himself when he finally did show up to talk.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Churches Sometimes must Apologize for Ignorance

The pilgrims who settled this country in 1620 were a conservative sect of the Church of England. The church’s members are known as Anglicans, and it was the official state religion of England at the time the pilgrims came to America to start their own country.

Religious conservatives in America today lament the notion that we have become a depraved country, where sinful sex is everywhere and has even become socially acceptable. The other view, however, and the one that is more close to reality is that Americans, as a whole, tend to be repressive on matters of sex and science.

There is a commercial currently running on TV where a family visits a beach in Spain, only to find out it is a nude beach. One of the actors places his hand in a strategic location to mask the nude body of a female sunbather while the little girl of the family asks her mom, “Why is everybody naked?”

It is meant to be comical. But it highlights how differently our lives have been influenced by our puritanical history from the way modern Europeans have matured without such conservative influences in their history.

At the same time, whenever the mainstream European-based religions have gotten it wrong in the past, they have often stepped up and admitted their mistakes and even apologized to the great men of science that initially gave the church headaches, even if their apologies have often come centuries late.

The latest example is the Church of England’s apology to Charles Darwin. The Rev. Malcolm Brown, who heads the church’s public affairs department, said that Anglicans owe Darwin an apology for the way they condemned him following the release of his master work of science, On the Origin of Species in 1859.

The Church of England said it agreed with Brown’s position, although it did not constitute an official church apology. That’s probably because the church never officially condemned Darwin, although its leaders of the day did take every opportunity to make fun of him and his theory of Natural Selection.

This is certainly not the first time a major church has had to say oops. In 1992 the Catholic Church made an official apology to Galileo for arresting him and forcing him to recant his ideas that the earth revolved around the sun. The bible clearly implies that all celestial objects revolve around the earth. And Galileo said that the bible, on that account, was clearly wrong. Three hundred years later, the Catholic Church officially agreed.

Other “oops moments” in church history include the 2006 apology by the Anglican Church for its roll in the slave trade and the clarification in 1996 by the Pope of the Catholic Church’s view on evolution. The Pope, at the time, said that the Church did not oppose the theory of evolution as outlined by Darwin. The Pope said our species may have evolved, but our spirit was given to us by God.

Over the centuries, great thinkers and progressive men and women of science have had to cower in fear of publishing their ideas because of religious oppression. Johan Kepler, the man who discovered how planets orbit the sun in elliptical paths, is another example. He didn’t publish his discovery until he was on his death bed for fear he would be persecuted by an intransigent church.

Andrew Darwin, Charles Darwin’s great-great-grandson said that posthumous church apologies are useless. “When an apology is made after 200 years, it's not so much to right a wrong, but to make the person or organization making the apology feel better,” he told the Daily Mall newspaper.

He’s right in a way. But I still think some good can come out of it. It shows young people who have been unfortunate enough to be raised in a fundamentalist church environment that religious leaders can, and often do, get it wrong. The moral to this story is that we all need to think for ourselves instead of blindly following what we have been taught all our lives by religious propagandists.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Crashing Things Together is Fun and Educational

It’s in our nature. We humans often get a kick out of crashing things into each other. I remember watching Demolition Derby on TV when I was young. It was fascinating to watch drivers crash cars into each other on purpose until only one was left running.

And remember when David Letterman used to throw things off the top of a tall building just to see how they would smash upon impact with the ground.

Imagine shooting two bullets directly at each other from high-powered rifles. What would happen to the bullets when they hit each other in mid-air? The collision would take place so quickly and the bullets are so small, that the actual impact would probably be anticlimactic. But if you placed a high-speed video camera at the impact site, you could slow down the collision and watch in awe as the bullets annihilated each other.

Ordinary matter doesn’t really seem ordinary when looked at up close. I mean really up close. For example, more than 99 percent of the mass of any atom is located in a tightly-packed, tiny center called the nucleus. The two heaviest particles that make up an atom, protons and neutrons, are located there. Electrons are, by contrast, featherweights that whirl around the nucleus. So most of the atom is nothing but space.

If you were to scale up the size of an atom so that its nucleus was the size of a pea, and if you placed that pea in the center of the 50 yard line of a football field, the first ring of electrons would be located out along the uppermost seats in the nosebleed section. Even with binoculars, the closest electrons could not see their own nucleus.

So in our hypothetical rifle bullet collision, despite the fact that the bullets would be deformed beyond recognition and probably fragmented into tiny bits, none of the atomic nuclei in any of the atoms of the lead in those bullets would be affected in the least. The entire reaction would be handled by the outer rings of electrons, far away from the nucleus.

Inside the nucleus of every atom reside one or more tiny particles called protons. They carry a positive electric charge and were thought for many years to be an indivisible building block of the atom. Protons were assumed to be solid particles that could not be broken down into anything else.

But in the 1930s, physicists began shooting atomic nuclei at each other at high speeds just to see what would happen. Amazingly, the protons in them broke apart into new particles. Protons were not indivisible. They were made of other, smaller, particles. Scientists have been playing demolition derby with subatomic particles ever since.

The latest and greatest (and most expensive) atom smashing toy of the nuclear physicists was recently completed in Europe. It is the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC. Hadrons are a family of subatomic particles, such as protons and neutrons. It came on line last week.

Within a year, it will be up to full power and scientists will start shooting protons at each other at a speed as close to the speed of light as they can get. The speed of light is the theoretical speed limit of matter. Nothing can go that fast because to do so would require an infinite amount of energy. But the protons in the LHC will be moving pretty close to that speed.

Scientists hope that, by looking at the debris left over when the protons collide, they can find some of the elusive particles that are predicted to exist but haven’t yet been found. At the energies that will be used to crash two protons together in the LHC, the scientists will be recreating the environment that existed within a fraction of a second after the Big Bang. So the LHC is something like a time machine for subatomic particles.

What they discover from these collisions will probably produce more questions than answers. But scientists are fairly certain the results will lead them closer to an understanding of the ultimate question. How was the universe created?

See, crashing things together can be both fun and educational.

Friday, September 05, 2008

God Save Us from Palin

When John McCain picked Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin to be his vice-presidential running mate, I thought he had lost it. It was obviously a desperate attempt to reinvigorate his floundering campaign. Some compared it to a Hail Mary pass in football. The play almost never works, but when it does, it could be a game changer.

Whether or not McCain’s Hail Mary will work still remains to be seen. It has certainly reenergized the Republican base of evangelical Christians, who were always lukewarm to McCain himself. But if he’s hoping to win over women voters who backed Clinton, the ploy may backfire. Clinton supporters are smart enough to see through it.

Regardless of the reasons he picked Palin, the possibility that McCain’s campaign might actually have a shot at victory has me worried. Although vice-presidents typically hold very little power of their own, they at least have the ear of the president. And if something happened to McCain while serving, Palin would actually become the president. That should be enough to make anyone nervous.

This woman is spooky. She scares me half to death, not because she’s a bulldog or because she speaks her mind or because she may be a maverick. Those things I can deal with. It’s her ideology that scares me.

George W. Bush has been the worst president in our history, and that’s not just my opinion, but the opinion of professional historians who know all about American history. But Palin might just be farther to the right than he is. Consider some of the things she has said just since she has been Governor of Alaska.

She told ministry students from a church school that troops were sent to Iraq “on a task that is from God.”

And that’s not all. She claims to be doing God’s will in governing Alaska, particularly in building a natural gas pipeline. “God's will has to be done in unifying people and companies to get that gas line built, so pray for that,” she said.

In talking about building roads and buying new police cars, she invoked the will of God and told people it couldn’t happen unless they prayed for it. “But really all of that stuff doesn't do any good if the people of Alaska's heart isn't right with God,” Palin said.

Now, obviously, these words and her sentiment might please the bible thumpers. But they should frighten everyone else, including mainstream Christians. Here we have a woman who wants to be a heartbeat away from an aging president and who believes that her policy decisions on everything from the economy to energy and foreign policy have been mandated by God.

Palin told the ministry students that she would work to implement God’s will from the governor’s office. And God’s will was to build gas pipelines and to send young Americans to fight the war in Iraq. And she called on all Alaskans to pray for God’s will to be implemented. “That's what we have to make sure that we're praying for, that there is a plan and that plan is God's plan,” she said.

That brings forth an obvious question. How does she know what God’s will is? And if it really is God’s will, why do we have to pray for it to be implemented? We are in Iraq because of Bush’s perception of what God’s will is. Now Palin wants to carry on God’s will at the side of McCain for the next four years.

Not since the Divine Right of kings back in the Middle Ages has a leader given over governance of a country to his narrow view of what God wants. Bush has done that, and Palin wants to continue his legacy, bringing our country even closer to a theocracy.

Never mind the Constitution or separation of church and state or freedom of religion. Never mind that we are supposed to have freedom of choice in this country. We don’t now and really never did, but we have far less freedom of choice under Bush than we did under previous presidents and we will have even less with McCain and Palin.

Personal freedom is very important to me. We, as Americans, ought to have the private right to do whatever we want, as long as it does not infringe upon others’ rights to do the same thing. But with Bush, and with McCain and Palin, we will have the personal freedoms only to do what they believe is God’s will. Seems we may be coming full circle to the days when the king knew best, because he obtained that knowledge from the Almighty.

May God help us.