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Howard Zinn's Personal Philosophy

Question: What is your philosophy?

Howard Zinn: I believe, I suppose, in what could be called democratic socialism. I believe that we need a society where the motive for the economic system is not corporate profit, but the motive is the welfare of people, health care, jobs, child care, and so on. But that is dominant. Where there is a greater equalization of wealth and a society which is peaceful, which devotes its resources to helping people in the country and elsewhere.

I believe in a world where war is no longer the recourse for the settling of grievances and problems. I believe in the wiping out of national boundaries.

I don’t believe in visas and passports and immigration quotas. I think we need to move toward a global society. They use the word “globalization,” but they use it in a very narrow sense to mean the freedom of corporations to move across boundaries. But what we need is a freedom of people and things to move across boundaries.

When I talk about socialism in our jails, I mean greater societal intervention into the economy, but without deprivation of civil liberties. Dalton Trumbo, the Hollywood writer, put it very simply. He said, “Socialism without jails.”

 

Question: How do you blend anarchism, socialism and communism?

Howard Zinn:  I like to think of taking the best elements of all of them.  If you separate communism from the Soviet Union and from those bureaucratic and totalitarian countries that call themselves Marxist or communist, and just treat communism as it was envisioned by Marx and Engels, ultimately a society where there would be a freedom of the individual and a rational use of the world’s resources.  That’s something to take from communism. 

From socialism I would take what I just described and that is the use of a democratically-elected government to equalize resources and help people. 

I would take from anarchism the suspicion of authority and suspicion of all governments and the readiness to criticize and rebel against any government that may have started out in a humanitarian way, but they can easily become ossified and dictatorial.  Anarchism has as its goal the idea of a decentralized society where individuals are free from the oppression of government and corporate power and the church. 

I think there are elements in all three that are useful.

 

Question: Is that a practical way of thinking?

Howard Zinn:  It’s certainly not practical in the sense of something that’s immediately achievable.  But I think it’s very important to hold as a goal.  It’s philosophical, but not in a utopian sense that makes it simply theoretical and unworkable.  It’s philosophical only in the sense that it’s long term.  So although it’s not an immediate possibility or probability, I think it’s very important to have an idea of what a good society would be like so that you can measure what is happening today and what the policies are today against that goal.

Recorded On: July 5, 2008

 

 

Howard Zinn explains democratic socialism.

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A clever new study definitively measures how long it takes for quantum particles to pass through a barrier.

Image source: carlos castilla/Shutterstock
  • Quantum particles can tunnel through seemingly impassable barriers, popping up on the other side.
  • Quantum tunneling is not a new discovery, but there's a lot that's unknown about it.
  • By super-cooling rubidium particles, researchers use their spinning as a magnetic timer.

When it comes to weird behavior, there's nothing quite like the quantum world. On top of that world-class head scratcher entanglement, there's also quantum tunneling — the mysterious process in which particles somehow find their way through what should be impenetrable barriers.

Exactly why or even how quantum tunneling happens is unknown: Do particles just pop over to the other side instantaneously in the same way entangled particles interact? Or do they progressively tunnel through? Previous research has been conflicting.

That quantum tunneling occurs has not been a matter of debate since it was discovered in the 1920s. When IBM famously wrote their name on a nickel substrate using 35 xenon atoms, they used a scanning tunneling microscope to see what they were doing. And tunnel diodes are fast-switching semiconductors that derive their negative resistance from quantum tunneling.

Nonetheless, "Quantum tunneling is one of the most puzzling of quantum phenomena," says Aephraim Steinberg of the Quantum Information Science Program at Canadian Institute for Advanced Research in Toronto to Live Science. Speaking with Scientific American he explains, "It's as though the particle dug a tunnel under the hill and appeared on the other."

Steinberg is a co-author of a study just published in the journal Nature that presents a series of clever experiments that allowed researchers to measure the amount of time it takes tunneling particles to find their way through a barrier. "And it is fantastic that we're now able to actually study it in this way."

Frozen rubidium atoms

Image source: Viktoriia Debopre/Shutterstock/Big Think

One of the difficulties in ascertaining the time it takes for tunneling to occur is knowing precisely when it's begun and when it's finished. The authors of the new study solved this by devising a system based on particles' precession.

Subatomic particles all have magnetic qualities, and they spin, or "precess," like a top when they encounter an external magnetic field. With this in mind, the authors of the study decided to construct a barrier with a magnetic field, causing any particles passing through it to precess as they did so. They wouldn't precess before entering the field or after, so by observing and timing the duration of the particles' precession, the researchers could definitively identify the length of time it took them to tunnel through the barrier.

To construct their barrier, the scientists cooled about 8,000 rubidium atoms to a billionth of a degree above absolute zero. In this state, they form a Bose-Einstein condensate, AKA the fifth-known form of matter. When in this state, atoms slow down and can be clumped together rather than flying around independently at high speeds. (We've written before about a Bose-Einstein experiment in space.)

Using a laser, the researchers pusehd about 2,000 rubidium atoms together in a barrier about 1.3 micrometers thick, endowing it with a pseudo-magnetic field. Compared to a single rubidium atom, this is a very thick wall, comparable to a half a mile deep if you yourself were a foot thick.

With the wall prepared, a second laser nudged individual rubidium atoms toward it. Most of the atoms simply bounced off the barrier, but about 3% of them went right through as hoped. Precise measurement of their precession produced the result: It took them 0.61 milliseconds to get through.

Reactions to the study

Scientists not involved in the research find its results compelling.

"This is a beautiful experiment," according to Igor Litvinyuk of Griffith University in Australia. "Just to do it is a heroic effort." Drew Alton of Augustana University, in South Dakota tells Live Science, "The experiment is a breathtaking technical achievement."

What makes the researchers' results so exceptional is their unambiguity. Says Chad Orzel at Union College in New York, "Their experiment is ingeniously constructed to make it difficult to interpret as anything other than what they say." He calls the research, "one of the best examples you'll see of a thought experiment made real." Litvinyuk agrees: "I see no holes in this."

As for the researchers themselves, enhancements to their experimental apparatus are underway to help them learn more. "We're working on a new measurement where we make the barrier thicker," Steinberg said. In addition, there's also the interesting question of whether or not that 0.61-millisecond trip occurs at a steady rate: "It will be very interesting to see if the atoms' speed is constant or not."

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