Author spotlight: Robert Bernstein

Degrees from Physics departments of MIT and UC Santa Barbara. Career in designing atomic-resolution microscopes. Childhood spent in Europe and the East of the US. Passion to understand the Big Questions of life and the universe. Duty to be a good citizen of the planet.

Altruism, Evolution and Religion?
By Robert Bernstein   |   February 13, 2024

Back in July 2006 I watched a BookTV interview with Francis Collins, talking about his book The Language of God. At the time, Collins was Director of the National Human Genome Research Institute; the massive government project to map the human genome, initiated by President Clinton. Privately funded projects actually reached much of the goal […]

Slavery Today?
By Robert Bernstein   |   January 30, 2024

My recent article on slavery, abortion and states’ rights promised a follow-up. This is it. My college lady friend was volunteering at a community medical clinic in 1981 for her pre-med program. The clinic was in a very poor minority neighborhood. They educated the volunteers and patients about the history of oppression as part of […]

Climate Geoengineering Free Riders?
By Robert Bernstein   |   January 23, 2024

Geoengineering is the controversial idea of altering the earth in some way to offset human harms to the climate. Some fear it could make us complacent about the real solution: Reducing fossil fuel use. “Can $500 Million Save This Glacier” was the title of a recent New York Times article. British glaciologist John Moore attended […]

States’ Rights for Slavery and Abortion?
By Robert Bernstein   |   January 16, 2024

Presidential candidate Nikki Haley was asked by a voter in Berlin, New Hampshire, “What was the cause of the United States Civil War?” She treated it as some kind of trick question. After three rounds back and forth, she never mentioned the word “slavery.” Obviously, she did not want to alienate racists in her base. […]

Habits for New Year?
By Robert Bernstein   |   January 9, 2024

Happy New Year! Traditionally, a new year is seen as a time for a fresh start. Even if there is no physical significance to this time, it is an opportunity to reflect on where we have been and where we want to go. Many people make resolutions for the new year and, sadly, few last […]

Street Epistemology?
By Robert Bernstein   |   January 2, 2024

I recently attended an international Skeptics Society conference. One of the highlights was an interactive demonstration and experience of “Street Epistemology” by philosophy professor Peter Boghossian. Our current times are famously tense, with people choosing sides on a wide range of issues and digging in to defend their side. In many cases, the actual issues […]

Ownership vs. Evil Subscription?
By Robert Bernstein   |   December 19, 2023

People are surprised that I don’t own any Apple products and don’t plan to. I developed an aversion to Apple as a grad student, designing scientific instruments based on the newly emerging personal computers. Apple kept their hardware “closed” to outside connections. The IBM PC had its own problems, using the horrible Intel processor of […]

Risk vs. Prediction?
By Robert Bernstein   |   December 5, 2023

My last article was about the need for direct government investment in solving the Climate Crisis. That getting rid of bad subsidies and incentives is helpful, but not enough. This point was made by Simon Sharpe, who worked on counterterrorism for the UK Foreign Office. But Sharpe made another vital point: A lot of climate […]

Climate Repair ‘Five Times Faster’?
By Robert Bernstein   |   November 21, 2023

I have written before about bad subsidies and incentives that have gotten us into the Climate Crisis. But there is another way to view the problem. “Nobody thinks we made the transition from horses to cars by taxing horseshit. Nobody thinks that we created the internet by taxing letter writing. Why would it be any […]

Left is Not Woke?
By Robert Bernstein   |   November 14, 2023

In ancient Greek tragedy, exile was considered a worse punishment than death. In modern times, woke cancel culture applies exile with little regard to its devastating impact on the target and on society. “Woke” originally meant a person was awake to actual racial and social injustice. Leftist Susan Neiman wrote a book Left is Not […]

Common Narrative for Israel/Palestine Conflict?
By Robert Bernstein   |   November 7, 2023

I usually consider myself to be a secular Humanist. But events like the brutal October 7 Hamas attack on Israel make me feel very Jewish. Everyone wants peace. The question is on what terms and how to get there. The Humanist Society of Santa Barbara (HSSB) hosted a refreshingly innovative talk in 2018 offering a way […]

Questions for God?
By Robert Bernstein   |   October 24, 2023

I recently was delighted to reconnect with one of my favorite high school teachers, Wesley Walker, over 45 years since graduating from high school in the D.C. area. He was my English teacher, but he was much more. He was a gifted musician and a great philosophical thinker. He and I would have heated arguments in […]

Immigration Statute of Limitations?
By Robert Bernstein   |   October 10, 2023

Trump claimed that he was going to go after “bad hombres” who were illegally in the U.S. But then he went after people like Juana Flores, right here in Goleta. She had been in the U.S. since 1988. Her husband and her many children and grandchildren were all legal U.S. citizens. She probably would have […]

Conspiracy Theories Not What They Used to Be?
By Robert Bernstein   |   October 3, 2023

“Even Conspiracy Theorists Are Alarmed by What They’ve Seen” was the title of a recent New York Times article. I grew up in an era of real conspiracies. Senator Frank Church of Idaho conducted hearings after Watergate investigating the horrific abuses by the CIA, FBI, and NSA. Perhaps most shocking for U.S. citizens: Operation MKULTRA, […]

Back to Normal?
By Robert Bernstein   |   September 26, 2023

Three and a half years ago (April 2020), I wrote an article “What is Normal?” It was the start of the COVID pandemic and people were asking for a return to “normal.” I asked: “Is that what we really want?” Is it “normal” that tens of millions of Americans have no access to health care? […]

Can Legal Action Save Us From the Climate Crisis?
By Robert Bernstein   |   September 19, 2023

“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” This line from William Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 2 is a widely spread meme on t-shirts and more. Those spreading the meme see lawyers as the enemy. But the original meaning was probably the opposite. The line is stated by “Dick the Butcher” who is […]

Iceland Adventure: Images from Afar
By Robert Bernstein   |   September 5, 2023

Merlie and I travelled for most of July in Iceland and Greenland with Overseas Adventure Travel. Upon arrival, the Litli-Hrutur volcano erupted near the airport. I thought we might be stranded. Instead, it was an opportunity of a lifetime: We got to fly over it in a small plane! Along the way we also saw […]

What Is Clean?
By Robert Bernstein   |   August 22, 2023

Almost 10 years ago I was flying to a psychology conference for my work and I picked up a book called The Power of Habit while changing planes at LAX. I learned something in that book almost as valuable as anything I learned at the conference. Author Charles Duhigg told the story of a Procter […]

Can Ukraine Help Us Finally Understand the U.S. War in Vietnam?
By Robert Bernstein   |   August 8, 2023

Growing up in D.C. in the ‘60s and ‘70s, my parents took me with them to marches, rallies, and demonstrations against the U.S. War in Vietnam. Note that I do not call it the “Vietnam War.” For my parents, I think they saw it as an extension of the lessons of the Holocaust: that we […]

Telepresence: Where Am I?
By Robert Bernstein   |   July 11, 2023

Our Humanist Society of Santa Barbara followed other organizations in moving to Zoom meetings during Covid. But we do now have occasional social gatherings. At one such gathering recently I talked to a member who said she “hates Zoom” and will only attend in-person events. I realized that she did not understand the concept of […]

What Are the Odds? Can Bayes Help?
By Robert Bernstein   |   June 27, 2023

We hairless apes are notoriously bad at estimating probabilities. I plan to write more about other such “cognitive biases.” For example, if you see several coin tosses coming up heads, do you think that the odds go up for the next toss to be tails? Assuming a fair coin, the odds for each toss are […]

Magical Thinking
By Robert Bernstein   |   June 20, 2023

Do you roll your eyes or get angry when you hear the words “thoughts and prayers”? This is an expression increasingly associated with the gun lobby trying to force us to accept endless mass shootings. But it is also an example of magical thinking. Does anyone think that their thoughts or prayers have any actual […]

Biden Picking the Right Winners?
By Robert Bernstein   |   June 6, 2023

“Government shouldn’t pick winners” is the constant refrain from the “free market” crowd. Except when they want government to pick their chosen winners. “President Trump has ordered Energy Secretary Rick Perry to ‘prepare immediate steps’ to stop the closing of unprofitable coal and nuclear plants around the country” was the lede of a June 1, […]

Hands Free Phone Driving = Drunk Driving?
By Robert Bernstein   |   May 30, 2023

“Don’t Drink and Drive: You might hit a bump and spill your beer.” This bumper sticker is a perfect microcosm of our ape brain absurdity. The same absurdity of using phones while driving. When a friend first told me about a new law banning texting while driving, I thought it was a joke. “Are they […]

Are Republicans Hostage Takers?
By Robert Bernstein   |   May 16, 2023

As I write this, the Republican Party is holding the entire world hostage. The immediate issue is the “debt ceiling.” The threat is very real. If the debt ceiling is not raised, the U.S. government could default on its loans. This has never happened before. The debt ceiling is about repaying money that has already […]

Good to be Unreasonable?
By Robert Bernstein   |   May 9, 2023

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” This quote by George Bernard Shaw provided the title of a wonderful film about the heroic life of Ralph Nader, An Unreasonable Man. How do you respond when you […]

AI Alignment Problem?
By Robert Bernstein   |   May 2, 2023

Artificial Intelligence (AI) may be the greatest innovation since the invention of fire or the wheel, according to recent talk. It may also be our last invention. I first became aware of the amazing potential of Artificial Intelligence as a teen, ironically, when I read a book by Berkeley philosophy professor Hubert Dreyfus called What […]

Alien Minds
By Robert Bernstein   |   April 25, 2023

“Everyone is basically the same” is how many of us were raised. The intention was to see our commonality, rather than our differences. But, what if we truly see the world in very different ways? It’s as if we are alien species, trying to live together. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has tried to help us […]

Exponentially Moore?
By Robert Bernstein   |   April 18, 2023

Intel Corporation founder Gordon Moore died on March 24. Moore helped pioneer the development of the silicon chip at the heart of our modern electronic world. But his greatest contribution may have been “Moore’s Law” – his observation in the 1960s that transistor counts on a chip were increasing exponentially, the count doubling every two […]

Privatized Profits and Socialized Losses?
By Robert Bernstein   |   April 4, 2023

The recent failures, negotiated bailouts, and buyouts of Silicon Valley Bank, Signature Bank, First Republic Bank, and Credit Suisse are a reminder of how life is different for different classes of people. “Socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor” is how Michael Harrington described it in his 1962 book, The Other America. Detroit […]

Some Local Problems Are Global?
By Robert Bernstein   |   March 28, 2023

Communities all over California are struggling to meet a mandate to build more housing. This dates back to a 1969 “Housing Element” law, now in its sixth round. The current mandate is for 3.5 million new units by the year 2025. The state is far short of meeting that goal and local governments face penalties […]

Madagascar Adventure: Images from Afar
By Robert Bernstein   |   March 21, 2023

Just before COVID, the British journal New Scientist offered a tour to Madagascar, and I immediately placed a deposit. More than 20 years ago, I had attended a talk on Madagascar, which piqued my interest but also only offered a bleak interpretation of its conservation. (For a fuller discussion, see my article titled, “A Lesson […]

Miracle Cars?
By Robert Bernstein   |   March 21, 2023

Soon after I was first elected to the Sierra Club board, a fourth-grade teacher invited me to speak to her class. I came prepared with a list of questions, rather than a speech. I asked the class to imagine a car that runs on an unlimited source of energy that never runs out. And to […]

Is the Universe Linear or Cyclic?
By Robert Bernstein   |   March 7, 2023

“There is nothing new under the sun” comes from Ecclesiastes 1. It is a warning that all worldly efforts are futile. That all seeming progress is erased in history. For most of human history, progress really was not a visible thing. People used the same stone tools for thousands of years. Life was a subsistence […]

Two Santas?
By Robert Bernstein   |   February 28, 2023

In recent years, it has become a ritual for Republicans to threaten to shut down the government and crash the U.S. economy by refusing to raise the debt ceiling. This is like finishing your meal in a restaurant and refusing to pay the bill. These childish tantrums are in direct violation of the 14th Amendment: […]

Good Vibrations?
By Robert Bernstein   |   February 14, 2023

Over a year ago, I wrote an article “Wrong but Interesting?” wherein I noted that an idea can be wrong but still valuable for generating new ideas. In that article, I noted an example of an idea that I found wrong, and also not interesting: That “everything is vibrations.” I love the Beach Boys song […]

In Praise of Idleness?
By Robert Bernstein   |   January 31, 2023

Work/life balance is one part of Utopia that I just wrote about. In Praise of Idleness was a collection of essays published by mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell in 1935. In one essay he noted, “Owing to the productivity of machines, much less work than was formerly necessary is now needed to maintain a tolerable […]

By Robert Bernstein   |   January 17, 2023

Men Like Gods is a 1923 Utopian novel by H. G. Wells, which I was delighted to come across by accident in the library as a teen. An ordinary Englishman is swept up by scientific accident, along with a cleric and other countrymen, to a parallel world where all of our Earthly problems have been […]

Effective Altruism?
By Robert Bernstein   |   January 10, 2023

I am writing this during the end of year “Season of Giving.” Most of us will ask the same question: What is the most effective giving? How do you decide? There is a difference between feeling good and actually doing good. There is a new movement of “Effective Altruism” led by philosophers including Peter Singer, Toby […]

What Are Turn Signals For?
By Robert Bernstein   |   December 20, 2022

Is it really a “Big Question” to ask, “What are Turn Signals For?” Yes. This question offers a microcosm of communication and misunderstanding. The California Vehicle Code Section 22107 says: “No person shall turn a vehicle from a direct course or move right or left upon a roadway until such movement can be made with […]