Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Artificial mind

The New York Times today has an article about why the recent scientific feat of planting articial DNA into a living cell. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/01/science/01angi.html?th=&emc=th&pagewanted=print

In it they quote Richard Feynman to the effect that if you don't build something, you don't understand it.  Which caught my attention, (in a very attention getting article) because Jan Cox mentioned this is his off hand way. I say Jan's words were offhand because everything he said had another non verbalizable purpose, as he spoke to students he hoped to point in a certain direction. Feynman's use, and most certainly the quote, (the quote both by the article and by the DNA artificer) is different, it is a throw away line, what Gurdjieff called smart aleck intellectualizing. The first time Feynman thought that phrase: If you don't build it, you don't understand it, he had a glimpse.  Then he said it again, he wrote it,and he did not have the real glimpse again and everybody reading it, thought yeah that's right, and totally missed the import of the phrase. Now it is said to sound cool, with it -- in the way scientists participate in that kind of verbal energy -- a pat on a paddle of a ping pong ball. Not fresh, not creative, not really seeing anything. 

The Times article talks about how we cannot create cells, yet, and how without the already extant cell, the implanting of artificial DNA would not have succeeded.  The DNA, with over a million steps, was copied from existing natural DNA.  So talk about creating life, so the article says, is not accurate. The article points out that the scientist involved did not design the million plus bases, merely copied them.  That scientist pointed out that he was not creating life, but his humility is phony, it is the way you are supposed to act, when you accept congratulations. He knows how to behave in public. 

This I point out to sketch the scientific mind.  With all the incredible progress made during the last five hundred years, the humility that characterizes the real giants of human progress, such as Isaac Newton, is uncommon even among that niche of the intelligentsia.
As an example, it is my guess that most scientists would say we are closer to understanding the major mysteries of the universe than we were during the European renaissance. It is possible however,  that compared to  the amount we do not understand, the amount of knowledge of the renaissance scientist, who thought the earth could not move because if it did move, people would fall off, and today's quark jugglers--the difference between what these folks, separated by centuries,  really know, is so small as to be, statistically insignificant.

No comments: