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See Inside December 2011

Universe Expands While Minds Contract

The proof is in the pudding only if you concede the fact of the pudding



Matt Collins

The leaves are turning as I write in early October. Also turning is my stomach, from the accounts coming out of something called the Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C. According to Sarah Posner writing online in Religion Dispatches, talk-radio host Bryan Fischer went out of his way to attack me. And probably you. Anybody, really, who accepts science as an arbiter of reality. Fischer told the assembled that America needs a president who will “reject the morally and scientifically bankrupt theory of evolution.”

Evolution is a strange process indeed, to cobble together organisms who so completely and emotionally reject it. Well, evolution concerns itself only with differential survival, and brainpower may not be a crucial factor. Fischer may as well have gotten out of a car at the convention center and proclaimed that the car had not brought him there and did not in fact exist. To thunderous applause. One’s only reasonable response to this whole scene is to bring forefinger to mouth and rapidly toggle the lips while humming, so as to produce a sound roughly in accord with a spelling of “Blblblblblblblblblb.” 

A few days before the summit, over in the rational world, Saul Perlmutter won a share of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics. He and his fellow laureates, Adam Riess and Brian Schmidt, showed that the universe is not only expanding, the expansion is accelerating. (On hearing this news, my brother asked me if there was a limit. I told him yes, no more than three people can share any one Nobel Prize.)

Perlmutter’s Nobel led to an additional, highly coveted prize. His University of California, Berkeley—­home to 22 Nobelists over the years—gives newly minted laureates a campus-wide parking permit. And, if asked, every time Perlmutter exits his car he will no doubt respond that he arrived in it and that it exists.

Perlmutter the driver also surely has the good sense to know that alcohol impairs judgment and neuromuscular skills. Contrast that mind-set with Miami Herald reporter Jose Cassola—well, former Miami Herald reporter now—who ran a stop sign shortly before Perlmutter was getting news of his Nobel and then told the cop who pulled him over, “You can’t get drunk off of vodka.”

As Cassola explained to the arresting officer: “I’m fat, I won’t be able to get drunk from only seven shots.” He later expounded on his unique theories about alcohol and its effects to media-watch reporter Gus Garcia-Roberts of the Miami New Times: “Dude, I go to Chili’s all the time and have two-for-one margaritas, and then I get in my car. Am I drunk? No!”

The disoriented mind pronouncing itself whole is always a wonder to behold. Which brings us back to the Values Voter Summit. Oddly, Fischer’s enraptured audience may have been morphologically identifiable. That notion appears in an article in the June 25, 1885, issue of the journal Nature by Charles Darwin’s half cousin Francis Galton. (It’s probably a good example of our information inundation that less than an hour after I discovered this 126-year-old article, I cannot re-create the steps by which I wound up reading it. E-mail? Twitter? Link within a link? It’s all part of the mystery.)

Galton found himself at a boring lecture and decided to study the sea of heads in front of him. He noted that “when the audience is intent each person ... holds himself rigidly in the best position for seeing and hearing.” In other words, they sit up straight. When the talk got tedious, “the intervals between their faces, which lie at the free end of the radius formed by their bodies, with their seat as the centre of rotation varies greatly.” In other words, they lean.

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