Thursday, 17 January 2008
Two New Faces
The holiday break came and went. Then our green science tree, with its little figurines of Einstein and Benjamin Franklin also went into hibernation. There were changes in the hallways, as revealed by the nametags next to the doors. Two fellows, visiting only for the Fall Term had returned home. Two new fellows were taking their places. And Jim Woodward, who had originally signed up only for the Fall term, had made the welcome decision to stay on longer.
So things were different. But not that different. The major part of the group from the Fall, with its lively cameraderie, lived on. Good. But that could also be a problem. How could our two new fellows be inducted into this already established gang?
My hope was that our first reading group meeting would serve this purpose. At its first meeting of the term, we would make some brief academic introductions and then we would read something nominated by one of the old hands. That way the new fellows would be immersed in the ethos of our group. They would see that the goal of discussion and most interactions at the Center is to assist, not assassinate.
At it happened, I was worrying too much. I noticed very shortly after the new fellows arrived that they and the old hands were already lingering around the elevators just before noon, like bison around a watering hole. That is the standard behavior pattern of academics heading off to lunch together. One evening last week they went as group to a local bar. Tea, lemonade and scones, I surmised.
For the reading at our first meeting, Mehmet stepped up. He has been working on laws in biology and his interest has focussed on the question of possible parallels between laws in physics and laws in biology. So Mehmet had us look at a paper on precisely that topic from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Then a second paper from Philosophy of Science turned up in my email. All that was supplemented by a one page summary of Mehmet's project. There he reminds us of his attention grabbing view that laws in biology may be logical truths.
I'd managed to look at the two papers ahead of time. The first was interesting, but not really deep. The second was troubling. I was sitting on the bus going home, skimming though, looking for the essential moves. Then I saw them--they depended essentially on committing the gambler's fallacy. I looked around sheepishly, wondering if I had spoken aloud the gasp in my thoughts. I read the page again. It was there, clearly. How can this happen? Did others see it too? At lunchtime in our lounge I causally raised the topic of this paper among the one or two fellows who drifted in or out with their lunches. Each of them took on a pained expression that said "it is a terrible paper" before they could form these same words.
I sit here writing moments before our meeting wondering how this discussion will go. I have the food ready. We will have our standby of biscotti and something different. It is a large tub of halva in a form I've never seen before. It looks like shredded chicken, but tastes like the inside of a butterfinger bar. Someone has started a pot of coffee. The white board has just been scrubbed clean and the chairs are almost neatly arranged around the table.
John D. Norton