Take That, Cory Booker & Isaac Newton!

Defending science and poetic aphorism

May 20, 2012

Newark Mayor Cory Booker (same guy who pulled a woman from a burning building a few weeks ago) has a most human and engaging Twitter presence. (@CoryBooker) He does it all himself, sixteen hours a day, engaging all comers, and covering topics from a defective Newark traffic light, to sports, to personal chatter, to serious political or social dialog. I recommend it highly.

Yesterday, I read a fascinating exchange that I can't leave alone, for a series of reasons:

  • A mom named Dawn Witter (@dawnnozziwitter) began it with a news alert to Booker, that the NAACP board had resolved to support marriage equality. Ms. Witter editorialized, "About time!"
  • Booker's reply: "Arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice."
  • Then, inventor William McDavid (@MountainMole) challenged Booker with, "NO! Universe Bends Toward MASS! Justice is HUMAN Concept."
  • And Booker finished with, "Physics laws have often been overcome by humans' indomitable spirit."

Well, I was left spinning. My initial impulse was to Tweet a good-natured rebuke to Booker for his statement about physics laws—for reasons I'll get to in a moment. But I knew Twitter's 140-character text limit wouldn't permit me to say what I wanted. I would have to write a serious piece. Take a breath; here we go.

I'll deal first with my initial reaction. And I'm in grave danger of becoming pedantic here, but I have an important point about science itself. Booker's assertion about physics laws seems to suggest that we biological beings have some kind of a workaround to escape scientific fundamentals. I know he didn't mean that—he's a Rhodes scholar, after all. He was praising the remarkable viability and tenacity of human spirit, rather than saying anything about science. But the implication is still there, and I find it problematic in a political world where science is often treated as ideology, or mere belief.

Usage of the word law for scientific fundamentals goes back at least to Newton, who used the Latin word lex to label the seemingly inviolable principles he'd identified in his observations of nature. The problem is that the word law has been used for millenia to describe human proscriptions of behavior. In that sense, laws are plastic; they are inventions of people, changed casually or whimsically, and regularly ignored, skirted and violated.

Science is different. Its entire purpose and process is to discover the inviolable principles and facts of nature. And it's always a process. When we learn that phenomena don't fit our defined principles, we can't change nature; we must change our descriptions and definitions of the principles.

Newton's laws were ultimately found inadequate when scientific understanding advanced to relativity and quantum mechanics. His laws weren't wrong. They're still reliable today, until we try to apply them at scales of distance and velocity far beyond what Newton could observe with the tools he had. Even at extreme scales, we don't discard his laws; we fit them into a larger framework that can explain a wider range of phenomena.

There is no overcoming the principles of nature. There are no workarounds. Science isn't plastic like law. It makes frequent errors, and is always subject to new understanding, but we humans don't get to cast it aside in favor of our ambition. Nature remains nature.

I have a friend who is fond of saying, "Gravity—not just a good idea; it's the law." We can fly aircraft not because we overcome the principle of gravity, but because we employ a whole raft of other fundamentals alongside that inescapable principle.

There! So much for standing up to the likes of Isaac Newton and Cory Booker!

But I told you I'd find more in this; there is still McDavid's protest that the universe bends toward mass, not justice. True enough, regarding cosmology, but Booker's quotation seems to be adressing something else. So I set out to verify the quotation, and clarify its usage of the word universe. Aphorisms are frequently misquoted or misattributed, accidentally or sometimes deliberately, and we've recently seen frequent variations on the arc of the universe quote, so it bears scrutiny.

Arthur Howe has a nice 2009 article on Open Salon exploring the long history of the quotation, and its sources. He points out that then-Senator Barack Obama paraphrased it in a talk on the fortieth anniversary of Martin Luther King's assassination. Obama's version: "Dr. King once said that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice." Obama continued, "It bends towards justice, but here is the thing: it does not bend on its own. It bends because each of us in our own ways put our hand on that arc and we bend it in the direction of justice...." Obama's usage and attribution are accurate, and Dr. King used the remark often.

Many sources, though identify a much earlier version, from Theodore Parker, a nineteenth century abolitionist and Unitarian minister, "I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice."

Apart from learning that the aphorism deals with a moral, not a cosmological universe, we see that it gains in poetic grace as we trace it back in time. And in the right context, Cory Booker's usage, flowing from Parker through King and Obama, is poetically and factually appropriate.

To conclude then, I pass kudos to Cory Booker for hitting the right note in acknowledging the NAACP announcement. Also to Dawn Witter for kicking off this adventure of mind, and to William McDavid for defending the cosmos. But I call on Mayor Booker—and all of us—for due caution in matters of science. We rely on science, and are diminished when so many people fail to understand its tenets. Every small victory in understanding the essence of scientific method and practice helps bend the arc toward truth, thence toward justice.

  The Muser

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