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The Einstein Enigma

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A review of Walter Isaacson’s Einstein: His Life and Universe.

In the final weeks of his life Albert Einstein learned of the death of his old physicist friend Michele Besso from his Zurich student days six decades before. “He has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me,” Einstein wrote to the Besso family. “That means nothing. For us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubborn illusion.”

What did Einstein mean by “us believing physicists”? Did he mean belief in the models of theoretical physics that make no distinction between past, present, and future? Did he mean belief in some impersonal force that exists above such time constraints? Was he just being polite and consoling? Who knows? Such is the enigma of the most well-known scientist in history whose fame was such that nearly everything he wrote or said was scrutinized for its meaning and import; thus, it is easy to yank such quotes out of context and spin them in any direction one desires. Without a rich personal context in which to situate Einstein’s thoughts and theories it is hard to know for sure how to nuance his words. Until now. (continue reading…)

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Wronger than Wrong

Not all wrong theories are equal
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In belles lettres the witty literary slight has evolved into a genre because, as 20th-century trial lawyer Louis Nizer noted, “A graceful taunt is worth a thousand insults.” To wit, from high culture, Mark Twain: (continue reading…)

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Folk Science

Why our intuitions about how the world works
are often wrong
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Thirteen years after the legendary confrontation over the theory of evolution between Bishop Samuel Wilberforce (“Soapy Sam”) and Thomas Henry Huxley (“Darwin’s bulldog”), Wilberforce died in 1873 in an equestrian fall. (continue reading…)

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Hermits & Cranks

Fifty years ago Martin Gardner launched the modern skeptical movement. Unfortunately, much of what he wrote about is still current today
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In 1950 Martin Gardner published an article in the Antioch Review entitled “The Hermit Scientist,” about what we would today call pseudoscientists. It was Gardner’s first publication of a skeptical nature (he was the math games columnist for Scientific American for more than a quarter of a century). In 1952 he expanded it into a book called In the Name of Science, with the descriptive subtitle “An entertaining survey of the high priests and cultists of science, past and present.” Published by Putnam, the book sold so poorly that it was quickly remaindered and lay dormant until 1957, when it was republished by Dover. It has come down to us as Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, which is still in print and is arguably the skeptic classic of the past half a century. (continue reading…)

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Firewalking Across Hot Coals

Michael Shermer tries his hand at firewalking barefoot across 1000-degree red hot coals and doesn’t get burned. Dr. Shermer provides a scientific explanation for the mysterious phenomenon.

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