Friday, August 31, 2007

Why the Ocean Is Blue, Multiculturalism, and the Backwards S

Soul searcher asks,

"Why is my glass of water clear and colorless but the ocean is clear and blue?"
The commonsense response is that the surface of the water acts as a mirror, and what is this aqua reflector pointing at? The big blue sky. Reflected sunlight by the water, especially water that is high in minerals and other impurities that help reflect, is part of the answer. That's why the water looks blue when viewed from a distance, at an angle, but is clear when you are close and looking straight down into it. But think of cases where you have water that is not reflective, say, ice caves, they also give off a blue glow in the sun. Turns out it's much more wonderfully interesting than that. In fact, you tend to see more blue where the impurity levels are lower and therefore the water should be less reflective.

I know, you're now saying to yourself, "But wait a minute Steve," (which is a strange thing to be saying to yourself), "water is a liquid and ice is a solid with a crystal-like structure that affects refraction, surely that makes them apples and oranges with respect to their optical properties."

That would be true unless it was a chemical reason for the blueness. Turns out that it is a strange property of the chemical bonds between oxygen and hydrogen that they have a natural vibrational frequency that happens to be equivalent to the wavelength of red light. Huh?

Think of a piano, find someone with a good strong voice and have them sing a middle C into the piano. the vibration from their voice will hit all of the strings, but the C strings will be affected by this vibration in a special way. Because it is their natural frequency, the vibration will resonate in them and the strings will absorb the energy and vibrate significantly, where the other notes won't

Same is true here. When sunlight, comprised of all the colors hits the molecules of water, the OH bonds work like the piano strings and suck up the energy of the red part of the light leaving the blue part of the sunlight to bounce around and ultimately get reflected out to you making the water looks blue. Charles Braun and Sergei Smirnov, a couple chemists from Dartmouth have a paper on the question here.

Your glass of water simply has too little water and too little light indoors to reflect enough light back to look blue, but the ocean...

C. Ewing asks,
"Should we err towards or away from multiculturalism?

Some people tend to think it's actually detrimental to a given culture. The idea seems to be that instead of keeping a culture alive and flourishing, it actually lets it get "watered down", and it starts to be subsumed by, and play second fiddle to the predominant culture, thereby actually losing some of what made it distinct in the first place. It's a false salvation, that while placating a people, actually serves to just prolong the process of their culture being homogenized.

The other "bad" associated with this is the idea of the "China Town" phenomenon. Multiculturalism, one might say, just allows us to segment ourselves, and maintain divisions, while placating the liberals and PCers.

Can a person be both say, American and Chinese, or must they eventually choose which identity to embrace, and let go of the other? Are they mutually exclusive, at least in practice?"
On the one hand, there is no doubt that every culture has something interesting and enriching to offer and that being open to seeing the world through the perspectives of others' eyes is itself valuable in addition to what those other eyes show you.

At the same time, it seems like you are then faced with two options: assimilation or segregation. Assimilating into the larger society allows the wonderful aspects of the newcomers to enrich the broader culture. This is good, but comes at the cost of losing the sub-culture as a distinctive sub-culture. On the other hand, living in enclaves may maintain customs, tradition, and language, but also minimizes the larger impact and causes friction around the edges as a result of competing demands and misunderstandings. It is a difficult dance to do well, but when caringly and thoughtfully done, can yield a more interesting, open-minded and vibrantly dynamic community.

But an interesting slant on this question comes from Bruce Bawer here in this interview with Bill Moyers. Bawer, a gay man from the American South, moved to Europe in order to live in a more welcoming, open-minded society. He argues that the multi-culturalism of Europe, specifically Holland, may be self-defeating in being open to anyone with any cultural beliefs. He specifically points to the vicious murder of film maker Theo Van Gogh at the hands of a Muslim man angry because Van Gogh had made a film critical of the treatment of women in Muslim culture. Bawer argues that by being tolerant and welcoming of people who hate tolerance, you are setting yourself up to have all of the good that multi-culturalism could bring entirely undermined. Holland could be, he warns, setting up a situation similar to Algeria where democracy was democratically voted out in favor of a radical interpretation of Islamic law. He left the homophobic American South for someplace that was more welcoming, only to see people also coming in who think gay men should be executed. This worries him greatly.

It seems that Bawer's point can be put this way: multi-culturalism is a wonderful thing and important to having a dynamic living community enriched by and celebrating all of its members. But for it to work, everyone needs to buy in. No one can come in with the attitude that our way is the be all and end all and we have nothing to learn from anyone else, especially if that supposedly be all and end all culture is intolerant of others. To be celebrated yourself, you need to celebrate others and this starts by recognizing the mutual humanity of those in other cultures, women, and those of different sexual orientations. Being tolerant of intolerance in the name of tolerance, may end up causing more harm to tolerance than good. It's an interesting view.

I asked (that's I as in SteveG, not I as in I -- our friendly playground regular),
"if we all agreed tomorrow to change the way we write the letters "S" and "E" and all started writing them backwards, would that make it easier for children to learn how to write or would they suddenly all start writing it our current way and still get it backwards? If it would be an easier path to writing the Latin alphabet, doesn't that mean in some sense that we currently have it backwards, that we're the ones who have it wrong?"
I think S and E are backwards. When you print these (and a few other letters), you have to pick up your pen, move it out beyond where the letter goes, and write the letter in opposite direction from the flow of the word. We read and write in English from left to right, but you begin to print S, E, F, and C from right to left. When you are done one letter, you ought to be able to begin the next very close to where your pen is, yet with these letters you cannot. If they were printed in a form that is the reflection of their current form, this problem would disappear.

Of course, it would also not be a problem if there had not been a compromise in the late 19th century between the print and cursive crowds. The question was which to teach children in school. The cursive folks said that no one prints, it's more time consuming and sloppier. People who write, write in cursive, so just teach the kids to write. The print people argued that students read books which are not printed in cursive, so teaching them print would help in reading and enable written communication. And besides, they don't have the full manual dexterity yet to write cursive. The compromise was to teach printing first in the earliest grades and then cursive later. As a result, just when we figure out how to write our S's and E's, bam, we have to learn to write all over again.

Of course, that was before computers...