The Case of the Disappearing Physicists
There are a number of cases of mysterious disappearances relating to neutrino physicists.
Ray Jayawardhana is an astrophysicist at the University of Toronto. Hailed as "the new dean of popular science," Jayawardhana's discoveries have made headlines worldwide and led to accolades such as the Steacie Prize, the McLean Award, and a Radcliffe Fellowship.
There are a couple of different interesting cases of disappearance relating to neutrino physicists. One of them was Bruno Pontecorvo, an Italian who emigrated first to Canada and worked at a nuclear reactor in Ontario and while he was there he had some very insightful ideas about how you might go about detecting neutrinos either from the Sun or from a nuclear reactor.
He’s the one who suggested that perhaps a gigantic tank with chlorine might allow you to trap neutrinos. Later he worked in the atomic research laboratory at Harwell in Britain. All of a sudden while he was on holiday on the European continent, his whole family disappeared. It seemed the last place they had been was Finland and there was a lot of speculation and actually headlines in newspapers around the world in the fall of 1951 at the height of Cold War tension between the West and the Soviet Union that Pontecorvo had defected behind the Iron Curtain.
There was a lot of speculation but also some concern because people wondered whether he had taken some atomic secrets and would share them with the Russians. So this created a sense of panic at some level and suddenly a lot of media coverage. A few years later he did show up at a press conference in Moscow and explained that he had slipped out of Finland with his family and ended up in the Soviet Union and was working as a physicist. It was never quite established whether he took any valuable nuclear secrets or whether it was just his civilian nuclear physics knowledge that might have been beneficial in some ways. What was remarkable about Pontecorvo was that he anticipated some of the really weird and quirky properties of neutrinos long before anybody else.
When the solar neutrino problem was first identified around 1968 after the first measurements done by Ray Davis, Pontecorvo and a colleague of his in the Soviet Union proposed that the deficit of neutrinos from the Sun might be because they turn into other flavors that aren’t detected by our instruments.
So he was very, very insightful in a number of ways but he also left behind this mysterious disappearance which was never fully explained. There’s some suggestion that maybe later in life he came to regret his choice. But perhaps early on he was a committed socialist who thought that perhaps he wasn’t happy with what was happening in the West and decided that that might be an alternate way of life. But it sounded like he might have been disappointed later on.
Another remarkable story is another, as it happens, Italian physicist called Ettore Majorana who was a reclusive genius who disappeared without a trace at age 32.
Last anybody heard from him he had taken a boat from the mainland in Naples to Sicily and he was supposed to come back on the boat. It’s not clear whether he jumped, or what else might happened, but he never returned to the university where he had a post. And his colleagues never knew quite what happened. His family didn’t know what happened.
For quite a while all these sort of wild stories were circulating in Italy about what came of Ettore Majorana whether he had absconded to Argentina, given up on science and joined the monastery. There were apparently Majorana sightings in Italy like we talk about Elvis sightings in America.
So he was a bit of a kind of a pop culture icon for quite a while because of the nature of his disappearance. And to this day it’s not totally clear what happened to him. The easy explanation seemed to be that he might have committed suicide jumping off a boat but no traces were ever found. And his last note to his colleague suggested he was coming back, that he had changed his mind, he wasn’t depressed, he was likely to come back to work the next week. Never did.
Ray Jayawardhana is the author of Neutrino Hunters: The Thrilling Chase for a Ghostly Particle to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe.
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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:
"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."
Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.
Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.
The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?
Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression
In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.
It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.
Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.
Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.
The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.
It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.
In their findings the authors state:
"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.
Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."
With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.
Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner
As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:
- Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
- Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
- Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
- Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
- Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
- Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
- Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.
It's interesting to note the authors found that:
"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."
You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.
Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:
- 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
- 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
- 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
- 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
- 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
- 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.
Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement
Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:
- Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
- Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
- Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
- Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
- We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
- If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.
Civic discourse in the divisive age
Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.
There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:
"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.
Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."
We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.
This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.
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