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A Physicist on Human Beings

The dolphin discussion below inadvertently reminded me of a commencement address given at Ashland a few years ago by Dr. Julian Earls of NASA. Having attended quite a few commencements, I think it was the best address I have heard. Brilliant, eloquent, and understanding. At one point he addressed the subject of human beings:

It's not often that physicists get asked to address non-technical topics. But the reason we don't falls squarely on our shoulders because so often we forget the real reason we're here on this earth. That was made crystal clear to me a few years ago when our oldest son was in high school. He asked me for the definition of a human being, but he wanted it in engineering terms.

The definition I gave him was: A human being is a completely self-contained totally enclosed power plant, available in a variety of sizes and colors, and reproducible in quantity. Humans are relatively long-lived, have major components in duplicate, and science is rapidly making progress towards solving the spare parts problem. Humans are waterproof, amphibious, operate on a wide variety of fuels, enjoy thermostatically-controlled temperatures, circulating fluid heat, evaporative cooling, have sealed and lubricated barriers, auto and optional directional range finders, sound and sight recording, audio and visual communications, and are equipped with the sophisticated control center called 'The Brain.'

And when I was through with that description, it became significant to me for what has been omitted. What goes beyond the mere fact of this robot's existence and turns it into a human being? What makes it different from such mechanical marvels as the Viking Lander, the Pathfinder Lander, or the Spirit and Opportunity Rovers on Mars? Ladies and gentlemen, the meaning of being human is the most significant of all subjects. Science will never be able to reduce the value of human commitment to a formula. It will never be able to reduce the value of respect one for another, love one for another, support one for another, to arithmetic. The challenge of accomplishment in living, the depth of insight, the inter-beauty and truth-- these things shall always surpass the scientific mastery of Nature.

Or, as I tell my colleagues, you can have all the technical knowledge in the world at your fingertips, but if you aren't a caring human being, you're the most dangerous creature on Earth, and the most unfulfilled.

Good stuff.
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Discussions - 2 Comments

Yes, it's all been said before...there are no dolphin Shakespeares, etc. But, just as a thought experiment, take Shakespeare's brain and put it into an orca body. Now, what would Shakespear do? No hands, and living in a 360 degree world dominated by scent and sound rather than sight! All the world's a pool, and we are merely swimmers!

I've often wondered if cetaceans aren't the best poets, physicists, and philosophers on the planet, if we could only talk to them.

Every being is a package deal. A human level brain works best in a human body. Why? Because we are upright bipeds with arms and legs the effective functioning of which requires such a brain. Nature does nothing in vain, wrote Aristotle. This is more proof that he was right.

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