Archive for July, 2021

Going up!

In about a month, I’ll be teaching one of my favorite classes: Science, Technology, and Social Change. As you might guess from the title, the class encompasses the history and philosophy of science through the ages, as well as the ways new technology presents new questions and answers.

Topics are as ancient as the teachings of the pre-Socratics and as modern as the latest in observations of black holes.

I like to start by asking my students to place themselves on the technology spectrum between Luddite and Early Adopter.

It’s amusing enough to read anti-technology sentiments from students who are earning their degrees completely online.

But no one beats a woman I saw at a conference hotel a few years ago, as we both waited in line for an elevator. This person wore a large, obviously homemade button on her lapel: LAST LIVING LUDDITE.

I smiled. “That can’t be you,” I said.

“Yes it is,” she said, head held high. “I don’t have a cell phone. I don’t email or text. I’m not on Facebook—”

I had to interrupt. “So, you’re not in line for the elevator?”

She looked confused. “Of course I am.”

But this was a very smart lady. I could tell by her frown that she knew where I was headed.

The elevator came. The lady turned and walked away. I wondered if she used the stairs or simply took the next car.

I wish she’d stayed. I love hearing about people’s attitudes toward technology, where their thresholds are.


Magneto Compass generating unit recovered from aircraft used by pilot Wiley Post on his final flight in August 1935. Public Domain image, Smithsonian Museum

On July 22, 1933 (before even I was born) Aviator Wiley Post completed the first solo flight around the world. The flight took 7 days and 19 hours.

In August 1935 Wiley Post and humorist Will Rogers were flying together in a hybrid airplane when they crashed 15 miles outside of Point Barrow, Alaska.

The airport in Utqiaġvik, the largest city and borough seat of the North Slope Borough of Alaska is called the Wiley Post-Will Rogers Memorial Airport.

It seems fitting to honor Post, and others like him, after a week of edge-of-space flights.

UAPs (formerly known as UFOs)

With renewed interest in travel to outer space, I’m inclined to revisit para.

Para is all around us these days, especially with the release of the US Navy UFO videos. (Excuse me, UAP, the new name: Unidentified Arial Phenomena.)

We have paramedics, paralegals, paraprofessionals, parapsychology, and, of course, PARANORMAL. I’ve been trying to figure out what paranormal means vis a vis “normal.”

There are many possibilities.

One option is to consider it similar to what para means in paralegal. I had a brief career as a paralegal at a large law firm in San Francisco. We thought of ourselves as “almost” legals, just a few years of study away from being lawyers.  Maybe paranormal is “almost normal.”

But if you know the legal profession, you know para in this case means “subsidiary role of a lesser status.” With few exceptions, the lawyers in the firm reminded us of that hour by billable hour. I didn’t last long as a paralegal. Something about the way the law allows one to argue from two contradictory premises. That’s not my dog, but if it were my dog it didn’t bite you. But that’s another blog.

Another meaning of para is “guarding against,” as in a parasol, which guards against the sun, and a parachute, which guards against free fall.

Paranormal might mean “guarding against the normal.”

My most intense brush with paranormal came while I was teaching a course in the scientific method at a university in the SF Bay Area. The school was known at the time for its groundbreaking classes in nontraditional fields. A student could get a degree in Transpersonal Psychology, for example or Mysticism.


I taught a class with a full enrollment of mysticism majors. You have to pity them with me as an instructor.

The dean admitted outright that he’d hired me to be the Visiting Rationalist. I was to be tough on the students, force them to be scientific, to present their fields of study as “scientific, with real hypotheses and experiments.”

I had a tough choice to make: teach them classical physics rife with deterministic principles that allow no wiggle room, or confess that modern (i.e., quantum) physics seems every bit as strange as paranormal phenomena..

Some examples.

 Entanglement is the phenomenon by which two particles are inexorably linked no matter how much distance separates them. The state of one particle can be teleported to another particle far away.

String theory proposes that everything in the universe—matter, space, time—is made up of ten- (or greater) dimensional, invisible, vibrating strings.

And here’s a winner: the uncertainty principle. Essential to the foundation of quantum physics, the uncertainty principle tells us it’s impossible to make a measurement of a physical system without disturbing that system.

Hold on. Isn’t that one of the things we’ve criticized about “soft” sciences like psychology (let alone the “para” version)? That you can’t observe and make “exact” measurements of behavior because the presence of the measurer affects the result?

There’s more—so many phenomena like time travel and speeds faster than that of light are possible in the world of the very, very small. As long as you sneak the behavior in under the radar, which is on the order of 10 to the -27 (pretty small), you can do just about anything you want.

The mysticism majors? They would have preferred that I congratulate them on having observation, hypothesis, experiment.  Just like Newton.

How uninspired.

I passed them anyway.


A few weeks ago the Department of Defense formally released three Navy videos that contain “unidentified aerial phenomena.”

Don’t get too excited, the Pentagon warned, and astrophysicists seemed to agree. There’s no breakthrough; skeptics can hold on to their arguments that the UAPs can be explained by atmospheric effects, reflections, and even bugs in the imaging code.

See for yourself by downloading the videos.

But don’t skip over the renaming: UFOs are no more; we now have Unidentified Aerial Phenomena. A sign of progress? What do you think?