On meditation and the birth of the universe.

On meditation and the birth of the universe.

This is part of a series of essays prepared to discuss in jail.

Our bodies are chaos engines. 

In our nearby environment, we produce order.  We form new memories.  We build things.  We might have sex and create new life.  From chaos, structure.

As we create local order, though, we radiate disorder into the universe. 

The laws of physics work equally well whether time is moving forward or backward.  The only reason we experience time as flowing forward is that the universe is progressing from order into chaos.

In the beginning, everything was homogeneous.  The same stuff was present everywhere.  Now, some regions of the universe are different from others.  One location contains our star; another location, our planet.  Each of our bodies is very different from the space around us.

This current arrangement is more disorderly than the early universe, but less so than what our universe will one day become.  Life is only possible during this intermediate time, when we are able to eat structure and excrete chaos. 

Hubble peers into a stellar nursery. Image courtesy of NASA Marshall Space Flight on Flickr.

Sunlight shines on our planet – a steady stream of high-energy photons all pointed in the same direction.  Sunshine is orderly.  But then plants eat sunshine and carbon dioxide to grow.  Animals eat the plants.  As we live, we radiate heat – low-energy photons that spill from our bodies in all directions.

The planet Earth, with all its life, acts like one big chaos engine.  We absorb photons from the sun, lower their energy, increase their number, and scatter them.

We’ll continue until we can’t.

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Our universe is mostly filled with empty space. 

But empty space does not stay empty.  Einstein’s famous equation, E equals M C squared, describes the chance that stuff will suddenly pop into existence.  This happens whenever a region of space gathers too much energy.

Empty space typically has a “vacuum energy” of one billionth of a joule per cubic meter.  An empty void the size of our planet would have about as much energy as a teaspoon of sugar.  Which doesn’t seem like much.  But even a billionth of a joule is thousands of times higher than the energy needed to summon electrons into being.

And there are times when a particular patch of vacuum has even more energy than that.

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According to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, time and energy can’t be defined simultaneously.  Precision in time causes energy to spread – the energy becomes both lower and higher than you expected.

In practice, the vacuum energy of a particular region of space will seem to waver.  Energy is blurry, shimmering over time.

There are moments when even the smallest spaces have more than enough energy to create new particles.

Objects usually appear in pairs: a particle and its anti-particle.  Anti-matter is exactly like regular matter except that each particle has an opposite charge.  In our world, protons are positive and electrons are negative, but an anti-proton is negative and an anti-electron is positive.

If a particle and its anti-particle find each other, they explode.

When pairs of particles appear, they suck up energy.  Vacuum energy is stored inside them.  Then the particles waffle through space until they find and destroy each other.  Energy is returned to the void.

This constant exchange is like the universe breathing.  Inhale: the universe dims, a particle and anti-particle appear.  Exhale: they explode.

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Our universe is expanding.  Not only are stars and galaxies flying away from each other in space, but also empty space itself is growing.  The larger a patch of nothingness, the faster it will grow.  In a stroke of blandness, astronomers named the force powering this growth “dark energy.”

Long ago, our universe grew even faster than it does today.  Within each small fraction of a second, our universe doubled in size.  Tiny regions of space careened apart billions of times faster than the speed of light.

This sudden growth was extremely improbable.  For this process to begin, the energy of a small space had to be very, very large.  But the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle claims that – if we wait long enough – energy can take on any possible value.  Before the big bang, our universe had a nearly infinite time to wait.

After that blip, our universe expanded so quickly because the vacuum of space was perched temporarily in a high-energy “metastable” state.  Technically balanced, but warily.  Like a pencil standing on its tip.  Left alone, it might stay there forever, but the smallest breath of air would cause this pencil to teeter and fall.

Similarly, a tiny nudge caused our universe to tumble back to its expected energy.  A truly stable vacuum.  The world we know today was born – still growing, but slowly.

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During the time of rapid expansion, empty vacuum had so much energy that particles stampeded into existence.  The world churned with particles, all so hot that they zipped through space at nearly the speed of light. 

For some inexplicable reason, for every billion pairs of matter and anti-matter, one extra particle of matter appeared.  When matter and anti-matter began to find each other and explode, this billionth extra bit remained.

This small surplus formed all of stars in the sky.  The planets.  Ourselves.

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Meditation is like blinking.  You close your eyes, time passes, then you open your eyes again.  Meditation is like a blink where more time passes.

But more is different.

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Our early universe was filled with the smallest possible particles.  Quarks, electrons, and photons.  Because their energy was so high, they moved too fast to join together.  Their brilliant glow filled the sky, obscuring our view of anything that had happened before.

As our universe expanded, it cooled.  Particles slowed down.  Three quarks and an electron can join to form an atom of hydrogen.  Two hydrogen atoms can join to form hydrogen gas.  And as you combine more and more particles together, your creations can be very different from a hot glowing gas.  You can form molecules, cells, animals, societies.

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When a cloud of gas is big enough, its own gravity can pull everything inward.  The cloud becomes more and more dense until nuclear fusion begins, releasing energy just like a nuclear bomb.  These explosions keep the cloud from shrinking further.

The cloud has become a star.

Nuclear fusion occurs because atoms in the center of the cloud are squooshed too close together.  They merge: a few small atoms become one big atom.  If you compared their weights – four hydrogens at the start, one helium at the finish – you’d find that a tiny speck of matter had disappeared.  And so, according to E equals M C squared, it released a blinding burst of energy.

The largest hydrogen bomb detonated on Earth was 50 megatons – the Kuz’kina Mat tested in Russia in October, 1961.  It produced a mushroom cloud ten times the height of Mount Everest.  This test explosion destroyed houses hundreds of miles away.

The fireball of Tsar Bomba, the Kuz’kina Mat.

Every second, our sun produces twenty billion times more energy than this largest Earth-side blast.

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Eventually, our sun will run out of fuel.  Our sun shines because it turns hydrogen into helium, but it is too light to compress helium into any heavier atoms.  Our sun has burned for about four billion years, and it will probably survive for another five billion more.  Then the steady inferno of nuclear explosions will end.

When a star exhausts its fuel, gravity finally overcomes the resistance of the internal explosions.  The star shrinks.  It might crumple into nothingness, becoming a black hole.  Or it might go supernova – recoiling like a compressed spring that slips from your hand – and scatter its heavy atoms across the universe.

Planets are formed from the stray viscera of early stars.

Supernova remains. Image by NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory and the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton.

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Our universe began with only hydrogen gas.  Every type of heavier atom – carbon, oxygen, iron, plutonium – was made by nuclear explosions inside the early stars.

When a condensing cloud contains both hydrogen gas and particulates of heavy atoms, the heavy atoms create clumps that sweep through the cloud far from its center.  Satellites, orbiting the star.  Planets.

Nothing more complicated than atoms can form inside stars.  It’s too hot – the belly of our sun is over twenty million degrees.  Molecules would be instantly torn apart.  But planets – even broiling, meteor-bombarded planets – are peaceful places compared to stars.

Molecules are long chains of atoms.  Like atoms, molecules are made from combinations of quarks and electrons.  The material is the same – but there’s more of it.

More is different.

Some atoms have an effect on our bodies.  If you inhale high concentrations of oxygen – an atom with eight protons – you’ll feel euphoric and dizzy.  If you drink water laced with lithium – an atom with three protons – your brain might become more stable.

But the physiological effects of atoms are crude compared to molecules.  String fifty-three atoms together in just the right shape – a combination of two oxygens, twenty-one carbons, and thirty hydrogens – and you’ll have tetrahydrocannibol.  String forty-nine atoms together in just the right shape – one oxygen, three nitrogens, twenty carbons, and twenty-five hydrogens – and you’ll have lysergic acid diethylamide.

The effects of these molecules are very different from the effects of their constituent parts.  You’d never predict what THC feels like after inhaling a mix of oxygen, carbon, and hydrogen gas.

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An amino acid is comparable in scale to THC or LSD, but our bodies aren’t really made of amino acids.  We’re built from proteins – anywhere from a few dozen to tens of thousands of amino acids linked together.  Proteins are so large that they fold into complex three-dimensional shapes.  THC has its effect because some proteins in your brain are shaped like catcher’s mitts, and the cannibinoid nestles snuggly in the pocket of the glove.

Molecules the size of proteins can make copies of themselves.  The first life-like molecules on Earth were long strands of ribonucleic acid – RNA.  A strand of RNA can replicate as it floats through water.  RNA acts as a catalyst – it speeds up the reactions that form other molecules, including more RNA.

Eventually, some strands of RNA isolated themselves inside bubbles of soap.  Then the RNA could horde – when a particular sequence of RNA catalyzed reactions, no other RNA would benefit from the molecules it made.  The earliest cells were bubbles that could make more bubbles.

Cells can swim.  They eat.  They live and die.  Even single-celled bacteria have sex: they glom together, build small channels linking their insides to each other, and swap DNA.

But with more cells, you can make creatures like us.

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Consciousness is an emergent property.  With a sufficient number of neuron cells connected to each other, a brain is able to think and plan and feel.  In humans, 90 billion neuron cells direct the movements of a 30-trillion-cell meat machine.

Humans are such dexterous clever creatures that we were able to discover the origin of our universe.  We’ve dissected ourselves so thoroughly that we’ve seen the workings of cells, molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles.

But a single human animal, in isolation, never could have learned that much.

Individual humans are clever, but to form a culture complex enough to study particle physics, you need more humans.  Grouped together, we are qualitatively different.  The wooden technologies of Robinson Crusoe, trapped on a desert island, bear little resemblance to the vaulted core of a particle accelerator.

English writing uses just 26 letters, but these can be combined to form several hundred thousand different words, and these can be combined to form an infinite number of different ideas.

More is different.  The alphabet alone couldn’t give anyone insight into the story of your life.

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Meditation is like a blink where more time passes, but the effect is very different.

Many religions praise the value of meditation, especially in their origin stories.  Before Jesus began his ministry, he meditated for 40 days in the Judaean Desert – his mind’s eye saw all the world’s kingdoms prostrate before him, but he rejected that power in order to spread a philosophy of love and charity. 

Before Buddha began his ministry, he meditated for 49 days beneath the Bodhi tree – he saw a path unfurl, a journey that would let travelers escape our world’s cycle of suffering. 

Before Odin began his ministry, he meditated for 9 days while hanging from a branch of Yggdrasil, the world tree – Odin felt that he died, was reborn, and could see the secret language of the universe shimmering beneath him. 

The god Shiva meditated in graveyards, smearing himself with crematory ash.

At its extreme, meditation is purportedly psychedelic.  Meditation can induce brain states that are indistinguishable from LSD trips when visualized by MRI.  Meditation isolates the brain from its surroundings, and isolation can trigger hallucination.

Researchers have found that meditation can boost our moods, attentiveness, cognitive flexibility, and creativity.  Our brains are plastic – changeable.  We can alter the way we experience the world.  Many of our thoughts are the result of habit.  Meditation helps us change those habits.  Any condition that is rooted in our brain – like depression, insomnia, chronic pain, or addiction – can be helped with meditation.

To meditate, we have to sit, close our eyes, and attempt not to think.  This is strikingly difficult.  Our brains want to be engaged.  After a few minutes, most people experience a nagging sense that we’re wasting time.

But meditation gives our minds a chance to re-organize.  To structure ourselves.  And structure is the property that allows more of something to become different.  Squirrels don’t form complex societies – a population of a hundred squirrels will behave similarly to a population of a million or a billion.  Humans form complex webs of social interactions – as our numbers grew through history, societies changed in dramatic ways.

Before there was structure, our entire universe was a hot soup of quarks and electrons, screaming through the sky.  Here on Earth, these same particles can be organized into rocks, or chemicals, or squirrels, or us.  How we compose ourselves is everything.

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The easiest form of meditation uses mantras – this is sometimes called “transcendental meditation” by self-appointed gurus who charge people thousands of dollars to participate in retreats.  Each attendee is given a “personalized” mantra, a short word or phrase to intone silently with every breath.  The instructors dole mantras based on a chart, and each is Sanskrit.  They’re meaningless syllables to anyone who doesn’t speak the language.

Any two-syllable word or phrase should work equally well, but you’re best off carving something uplifting into your brain.  “Make peace” or “all one” sound trite but are probably more beneficial than “more hate.”  The Sanskrit phrase “sat nam” is a popular choice, which translates as “truth name” or more colloquially as “to know the true nature of things.”

The particular mantra you choose matters less than the habit – whichever phrase you choose, you should use it for every practice.  Because meditation involves sitting motionless for longer than we’re typically accustomed, most people begin by briefly stretching.  Then sit comfortably.  Close your eyes.  As you breathe in, silently think the first syllable of your chosen phrase.  As you breathe out, think the second.

Repeating a mantra helps to crowd out other thoughts, as well as distractions from your environment.  Your mind might wander – if you catch yourself, just try to get back to repeating your chosen phrase.  No one does it perfectly, but practice makes better.  When a meditation instructor’s students worried that their practice wasn’t good enough, he told them that “even on a shallow dive, you still get wet.”

In a quiet space, you might take a breath every three to six seconds.  In a noisy room, you might need to breathe every second, thinking the mantra faster to block out external sound.  The phrase is a tool to temporarily isolate your mind from the world.

Most scientific studies recommend you meditate for twenty minutes at a time, once or twice a day, each and every day.  It’s not easy to carve out this much time from our daily routines.  Still, some is better than nothing.  Glance at a clock before you close your eyes, and again after you open them.  Eventually, your mind will begin to recognize the passage of time.  After a few weeks of practice, your body might adopt the approximate rhythm of twenty minutes.

Although meditation often feels pointless during the first week of practice, there’s a difference between dabbling and a habit.  Routine meditation leads to benefits that a single experience won’t.

More is different.

On translation and quantum mechanics.

On translation and quantum mechanics.

We have many ways to express ideas.  In this essay, I’ll attempt to convey my thoughts with English words.  Although this is the only metaphoric language that I know well, humans employ several thousand others – among these there may be several that could convey my ideas more clearly.

The distinct features of a language can change the way ideas feel

Perry Link writes that,

In teaching Chinese-language courses to American students, which I have done about thirty times, perhaps the most anguishing question I get is “Professor Link, what is the Chinese word for ______?”  I am always tempted to say the question makes no sense.

Anyone who knows two languages well knows that it is rare for words to match up perfectly, and for languages as far apart as Chinese and English, in which even grammatical categories are conceived differently, strict equivalence is not possible.

Book is not shu, because shu, like all Chinese nouns, is conceived as an abstraction, more like “bookness,” and to say “a book” you have to say, “one volume of bookness.”  Moreover shu, but not book, can mean “writing,” “letter,” or “calligraphy.”  On the other hand, you can “book a room” in English; you can’t shu one in Chinese.

There is no perfect way to translate an idea from Chinese words into English words, nor the other way around.  In Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, Eliot Weinberger reviews several English reconstructions of a short, seductively simple Chinese poem.  The English variants feel very different from one another – each accentuates certain virtues of the original; by necessity, each also neglects others.

Visual appearances can’t be perfectly described with any metaphoric language.  I could write about a photograph, and maybe my impression would be interesting – the boy’s arms are turned outward, such that his hands would convey a gesture of welcome if not for his grenade, grimace, and fingers curled into a claw – but you’d probably rather see the picture.

Here’s Diane Arbus’s “Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C.” 

This isn’t to say that an image can’t be translated.  The version posted above is a translation.  The original image, created by light striking a photosensitive film, has been translated into a matrix of numbers.  Your computer reads these numbers and translates them back into an image.  If you enlarge this translation, your eyes will detect its numerical pixelation.

For this image, a matrix of numbers is a more useful translation than a paragraph of my words would be. 

From a tutorial on computer vision prepared by Amy Jin & Vivian Chiang at Stanford.

Different forms of communication – words, pictures, numbers, gestures, sounds – are better suited to convey different ideas.  The easiest way to teach organic chemistry is through the use of pictures – simple diagrams often suffice.  But I sometimes worked with students who weren’t very visual learners, and then I’d have to think of words or mathematical descriptions that could represent the same ideas.

Science magazine sponsors an annual contest called “Dance Your Ph.D.,” and although it might sound silly – can someone understand your research after watching human bodies move? – the contest evokes an important idea about translation.  There are many ways to convey any idea.  Research journals now incorporate a combination of words, equations, images, and video. 

Plant-soil feedbacks after severe tornado damage: Dance Your PhD 2014 from atinytornado on Vimeo.

A kinetic, three-dimensional dance might be better than words to explain a particular research topic.  When I talked about my graduate research in membrane trafficking, I always gesticulated profusely.

My spouse coached our local high school’s Science Olympiad team, preparing students for the “Write It Do It” contest.  In this competition, teams of two students collaborate – one student looks at an object and describes it, the other student reads that description and attempts to recreate the original object.  Crucially, the rules prohibit students from incorporating diagrams into their instructions.  The mandate to use words – and only words – makes “Write It Do It” devilishly tricky.

I love words, but they’re not the tools best suited for all ideas. 

If you’re curious about quantum mechanics, Beyond Weird by Philip Ball is a nice book.  Ball describes a wide variety of scientific principles in a very precise way – Ball’s language is more nuanced and exact than most researchers’.  Feynman would talk about what photons want, and when I worked in a laboratory that studied the electronic structure of laser-aligned gas clouds, buckyballs, and DNA, we’d sometimes anthropomorphize the behavior of electrons to get our thoughts across.  Ball broaches no such sloppiness.

Unfortunately, Ball combines linguistic exactitude with a dismissal of other ways of conveying information.  Ball claims that any scientific idea that doesn’t translate well into English is an insufficient description of the world:

When physicists exhort us to not get hung up on all-too-human words, we have a right to resist.  Language is the only vehicle we have for constructing and conveying meaning: for talking about our universe.  Relationships between numbers are no substitute.  Science deserves more than that.

By way of example, Ball gives a translation of Hugh Everette’s “many worlds” theory, points out the flaws in his own translated version, and then argues that these flaws undermine the theory.

To be fair, I think the “many worlds” theory is no good.  This is the belief that each “observation” – which means any event that links the states of various components of a system such that each component will evolve with restrictions on its future behavior (e.g. if you shine a light on a small object, photons will either pass by or hit it, which restricts where the object may be later) – causes a bifurcation of our universe.  A world would exist where a photon gets absorbed by an atom; another world exists where the atom is localized slightly to the side and the photon speeds blithely by.

The benefit of the “many worlds” interpretation is that physics can be seen as deterministic, not random.  Events only seem random because the consciousness that our present mind evolves into can inhabit only one of the many future worlds.

The drawback of the “many worlds” interpretation is that it presupposes granularity in our universe – physical space would have to be pixelated like computer images. Otherwise every interaction between two air molecules would presage the creation of infinite worlds.

If our world was granular, every interaction between two air molecules would still summon an absurd quantity of independent worlds, but mere absurdity doesn’t invalidate a theory.  There’s no reason why our universe should be structured in a way that’s easy for human brains to comprehend.  Without granularity, though, the “many worlds” theory is impossible, and we have no reason to think that granularity is a reasonable assumption.

It’s more parsimonious to assume that sometimes random things happen.  To believe that our God, although He doesn’t exist, rolls marbles.

(This is a bad joke, wrought by my own persnickety exactitude with words.  Stephen Hawking said, “God does play dice with the universe.  All the evidence points to him being an inveterate gambler, who throws the dice on every possible equation.”  But dice are granular.  With a D20, you can’t roll pi.  So the only way for God to avoid inadvertently pixelating His creation is to use infinite-sided dice, i.e. marbles.)

Image of dice by Diacritica on Wikimedia images.

Some physicists have argued that, although our words clearly fail when we attempt to describe the innermost workings of the universe, numbers should suffice.  Neil deGrasse Tyson said, “Math is the language of the universe.  So the more equations you know, the more you can converse with the cosmos.

Indeed, equations often seem to provide accurate descriptions of the way the world works.  But something’s wrong with our numbers.  Even mathematics falls short when we try to converse with the cosmos.

Our numbers are granular.  The universe doesn’t seem to be.

Irrational numbers didn’t bother me much when I was first studying mathematics.  Irrational numbers are things like the square root of two, which can only be expressed in decimal notation by using an infinite patternless series of digits.  Our numbers can’t even express the square root of two!

Similarly, our numbers can’t quite express the electronic structure of oxygen.  We can solve “two body problems,” but we typically can’t give a solution for “three body problems” – we have to rely on approximations when we analyze any circumstance in which there are three or more objects, like several planets orbiting a star, or several electrons surrounding a nucleus.

Oxygen is.  These molecules exist.  They move through our world and interact with their surroundings.  They behave precisely.  But we can’t express their precise behavior with numbers.  The problem isn’t due to any technical shortcoming in our computers – it’s that, if our universe isn’t granular, each oxygen behaves with infinite precision, and our numbers can only be used to express a finite degree of detail.

Using numbers, we can provide a very good translation, but never an exact replica.  So what hope do our words have?

The idea that we should be able to express all the workings of our universe in English – or even with numbers – reminds me of that old quote: “If English was good enough for Jesus, it ought to be good enough for the children of Texas.”  We humans exist through an unlikely quirk, a strange series of events.  And that’s wonderful!  You can feel pleasure.  You can walk out into the sunshine.  Isn’t it marvelous?  Evolution could have produced self-replicating objects that were just as successful as us without those objects ever feeling anything.  Rapacious hunger beasts could have been sufficient.  (Indeed, that’s how many of us act at times.)

But you can feel joy, and love, and happiness.  Capitalize on that!

And, yes, it’s thrilling to delve into the secrets of our universe.  But there’s no a priori reason to expect that these secrets should be expressible in the languages we’ve invented.

On resurrection.

On resurrection.

Achilles briefly reaped fame and glory, then died in battle.  But people continued to speak of his feats with reverence.  In the underworld, he was as a god.

Yet Achilles would have traded everything – lived in squalor as a peasant farmer instead of fighting alongside kings – if it meant he could still be alive.

“No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus!

By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man –

some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive –

then rule down here over all the breathless dead.”

(translated by Robert Fagles)

The mythologies of ancient Greece offered no opportunity for resurrection.  As best I can recall, only one person almost managed to live again, and only because she’d charmed the world’s greatest musician.

Most other religions postulate that the dead could return.  This seems to be a widespread belief because it gives people hope.  It’s easier to face death – our own or the passing of loved ones – if we think that we could be reborn. 

Even contemporary physicists speculate on the possibility of rebirth.  Our minds are patterns.  If the number of possible patterns is bounded, perhaps because physical space is granular … and if the universe is infinitely large, with an infinite quantity of matter to arrange and rearrange … and if time itself is boundless … then something very much like you will come back. Eventually. 

The most probable form of resurrection is as a “Boltzmann brain,” a hypothetical structure in which the random fluctuations of a gaseous cloud temporarily recreates the connectivity as your current mind, including every memory and every perception that you seem to possess right now.  Sure, you think you’ve lived here on Earth for years, which would seem to indicate that you’re not just a gaseous floating brain … but there’s no reason why the brain couldn’t blink into existence full of false memories.  Your entire past might be a momentarily delusion.  Even your present perceptions – everything that you’re experiencing right now, the sights and sounds and feeling of existence – exist within your mind and so could be recreated within a floating cloud.

Stardust is beautiful — but can it think? Image from Hubble/NASA Goddard on Flickr.

Indeed, the physicists who believe our universe to be infinite and eternal think that there would be many times more “Boltzman brains” than living humans, and so you now are more likely to be a floating mind than an extant creature.  Again and again, they believe, you’ll exist between the stars.

This speculation seems no different from any other form of religious belief.  Rebirth is rebirth, whether you think that the pattern that makes you will arise again as an animal, an angel, or a disembodied spirit in the sky …

But we, as individuals, are unlikely to return.

More often, it’s religions themselves that are resurrected.  They slip away; we strive to bring them back.  Like Daoism, Wicca, or Odinism.  From Ian Johnson’s recent essay, “In Search of the True Dao,”

Louis Komjathy, a scholar who diligently seeks authentic Daoism, searches for masters who can initiate him into a lineage, even though Daoist lineages have been largely destroyed by the upheavals of the twentieth century.  There is no direct transmission of the ancient wisdom; instead it is a recreation of a lost past.

Depiction of mountains by Zhang Lu (1464–1538) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

At one time, the predominant religion in England was that of the druids and witches.  Roman soldiers, who were hoping to conquer the world, reported that these druids were rotten people, bloodthirsty and fond of human sacrifice.  Of course, similar slanders have been levied against outsiders throughout human history – Protestant Christians accused Catholics of human sacrifice, Muslims accused Christians of polytheism, Europeans accused Jews of all manner of imaginary ills, and even today many Americans believe Islam to be an inherently violent religion.  I don’t think the Roman reports about those evil druids are very credible.

Pagans managed to repel the Roman invaders.  But then, years later, Christianity spread throughout Europe, displacing the old faiths. 

No one recorded the original beliefs or mythologies of the druids.  Celtic mythology was written down only after the populace had converted; to make the stories “safe,” they were recorded as the memories of conquered giants who had been exorcised by Saint Patrick.

Similarly, the Norse myths we know today were recorded several generations after the populace had converted to Christianity.  Poets were worried that no one would be able to read the ancient literature that had inspired them, because Icelandic poets described everything obliquely.  For instance, you weren’t supposed to write the word “beer” in a poem; instead, you’d say something like “Odin’s gift,” since there was a myth in which Odin brought a special beer to share with the other gods, or you’d say “the eagle’s gift,” since Odin had changed shape to become an eagle in that story, or “Thor’s challenge,” since there was another myth in which Thor thought he was drinking beer but was actually slurping up the ocean. 

The special beer that Odin stole is said to have inspired all poetry.  Good poetry comes from the beer leaking out the Odin-eagle’s front end; bad poetry from the back.

And, yes, “Thor’s challenge” could also mean “ocean.”  The old poems strike me as standoffish – instead of inviting listeners to share an experience, the poets were challenging people to understand.  Poetry not as a gift, but an obtuse riddle intended to demonstrate how clever the poet is.  (Actually, some contemporary American poetry is like that too, and I think it’s silly.)

When I read the Norse myths, I can’t help but think that the Christian scribes’ prejudices seeped into the stories.  These scribes’ version of Christianity denigrated women – and most of the Norse myths about female heroes were coincidentally lost.

Indeed, some contemporary Christians’ prejudice against women is so stolid that when archaeologists sequenced DNA from a famous warrior’s skeleton and realized that she, the ceremonially-buried warrior, was female, many people suddenly decided that perhaps this woman was not a great warrior after all.

Her prowess had never been questioned until we learned that she had two X chromosomes.

And so, although we still have a story explaining that Thor’s greatest battle occurred while he was wearing a dress, other tales of feminine triumph (which are referenced throughout the cannon) were left out.

But, even if we still had the full set of stories, we wouldn’t really understand the viking religion.  With a copy of the Bible, you wouldn’t really understand Christianity; a copy of the Torah wouldn’t let you suddenly understand Judaism.  In practice, these religions seek kindness and community, but the underlying texts are violent and petty.  Yahweh felt slighted and decided to murder millions in a flood.  You’d have a pretty skewed vision of Christianity if that’s how you thought believers were supposed to behave.

As Anthony Appiah explains in The Lies that Bind, the traditions and practices of a religion are often more important than the foundational documents describing the creed.  In practice, the Jewish people of my home town don’t believe that sinners should be drowned in a flood, but rather welcome the lost into interfaith shelters, sharing warm clothes and a meal.

But when violent white supremacists decided to resurrect Odinism based off the preserved Norse myths, they created a strikingly unpleasant religion.  They do not know any of the traditions.  Instead, they base their beliefs on a handful of stories about the gods’ violent battles against giants, others about a human’s cursed wedding and betrayal. 

And, look – I’ve obviously never discussed theology with an ancient viking, either.  Maybe their beliefs really were brutish and unpleasant.  But I suspect that the vikings would feel puzzled, if not dismayed, were they to meet the tattoo-riddled milk-chuggers who self-describe as Odinists today.

On Vaughan & Staples’s ‘Saga’ and parenting metaphors.

On Vaughan & Staples’s ‘Saga’ and parenting metaphors.

I’m reasonably well-versed with small stuff.  I’ve studied quantum mechanics, spent two years researching electronic structure, that sort of thing.  I imagine that I’m about as comfortable as I’ll ever be with the incomprehensible probabilistic weirdness that underlies reality.

But although I helped teach introductory calculus-based physics, I’ve never learned about big things.  I took no geometry in college, and most big physics, I assume, is about transferring equations into spaces that aren’t flat.  The basic principle seems straightforward – you substitute variables, like if you’re trying to estimate prices in another country and keep plugging in the exchange rate – but I’ve never sat down and worked through the equations myself.

There’s only so much physics you can understand without chugging through the math.  Our numbers don’t quite describe the world – they can’t exactly express quantities like pi, or the solutions to most three-body problems – but they do a better job than our words.

gravity.pngStill, some excellent pop-science books on gravity have been published recently.  My favorite of these was On Gravity by A. Zee – it’s quite short, and has everything I assume you’d want from a book like this: bad humor, lucid prose, excellent pacing.  Zee has clearly had a lot of practice teaching this material to beginners, and his expertise shines through.

Near the end of the book, Zee introduces black holes – gravity at its weirdest.  Gravity becomes stronger as the distance between objects decreases – it follows an “inverse square law.”

If our moon was closer to Earth, the tides would be more extreme.  To give yourself a sense of the behavior of inverse square laws, you can play with some magnets.  When two magnets are far apart, it seems as though neither cares about the existence of the other, but slide them together and suddenly the force gets so strong that they’ll leap through the air to clank together.

But because each magnet takes up space, there’s a limit to how close they can get.  Once you hear them clank, the attractive magnetic force is being opposed by a repulsive electrostatic force – this same repulsion gives us the illusion that our world is composed of solid objects and keeps you from falling through your chair.

Gravity is much weaker than magnetism, though.  A bar magnet can have a strong magnetic field but will have an imperceptible amount of gravity.  It’s too small.

A big object like our sun is different.  Gravity pulls everything together toward the center.  At the same time, a constant flurry of nuclear explosions pushes everything apart.  These forces are balanced, so our sun has a constant size, pouring life-enabling radiation into the great void of space (of which our planet intercepts a teensy tiny bit).

But if a big object had much more mass than our sun, it might tug itself together so ardently that not even nuclear explosions could counterbalance its collapse.  It would become … well, nobody knows.  The ultra-dense soup of mass at the center of a black hole might be stranger than we’ve guessed.  All we know for certain is that there is a boundary line inside of which the force of gravity becomes so strong that not even light could possibly escape.

Satellites work because they fall toward Earth with the same curvature as the ground below – if they were going faster, they’d spiral outward and away, and if they were going slower, they’d spiral inward and crash.  The “event horizon” of a black hole is where gravity becomes so strong that even light will be tugged so hard that it’ll spiral inward.  So there’s almost certainly nothing there, right at the “edge” of the black hole as we perceive it.  Just the point of no return.

If your friends encounter a black hole, they’re gone.  Not even Morse-code messages could escape.

(Sure, sure, there’s “Hawking radiation,” quantum weirdness that causes a black hole to shrink, but this is caused by new blips in the fabric of reality and so can’t carry information away.)

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The plot of Saga, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, revolves around a Romeo & Juliet-esque romance in the middle of intergalactic war, but most of the comic is about parenting.  K read the entire series in two days, bawling several times, and then ran from the bedroom frantic to demand the next volume (unfortunately for her, Vaughan & Staples haven’t yet finished the series).

Saga is masterfully well-done, and there are many lovely metaphors for a child’s development.

For instance, the loss of a child’s beloved caretaker – babysitters, daycare workers, and teachers do great quantities of oft under-appreciated work.  In Saga, the child and her first babysitter are linked through the spirit, and when the caretaker moves on, the child feels physical pain from the separation.

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A hairless beast named “Lying Cat” can understand human language and denounces every untruth spoken in its present – allowing for a lovely corrective to a child’s perception that she is to blame for the traumas inflicted upon her.

lying cat from Saga

Perhaps my favorite metaphor in Saga depicts the risk of falling into a black hole.  Like all intergalactic travelers, they have to be careful – in Saga, a black hole is called a “timesuck” and it’s depicted as a developing baby.

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My favorite scene in the film Interstellar depicts the nightmarish weirdness of relativistic time.  A massive planet seems perfectly habitable, but its huge gravitational field meant that the years’ worth of “Everything’s okay!” signals had all been sent within minutes of a scout’s arrival.  The planet was actually so dangerous that the scout couldn’t survive a full day, but decades would have passed on Earth before anyone understood the risk.

Gravity eats time.

So do babies.  A child is born and the new parents might disappear from the world.  They used to volunteer, socialize, have interests and hobbies … then, nothing.

They fell into the timesuck.

On asymmetry and ‘The Hatred of Poetry.’

On asymmetry and ‘The Hatred of Poetry.’

hatredIn The Hatred of Poetry, Ben Lerner posits that many people dislike poems for falling short of an ideal.  We hold a vision of the glory that poetry could be: we want crackling verses that would, per Rilke, inspire us to change our lives; we want phrases that speak to all without resorting to postcard platitudes; we want poems to be universal, yet firmly rooted in a particular writer’s lived experience.

But the particular is never universal.  The catacombs of memory ensure that words convey slightly different meanings to us all; the best poems revel in this private language. And we, the readers, are stubborn, inertial creatures.  It is unlikely that any page’s worth of written words will change us, no matter how magnificent.

And so actual poems fail.  The ones we read seem little different from any other set of words.  As do those we write – if you are one of the few people who reached adulthood yet still writes poems.  All children do, just as all children draw, but the world trains us to slough off artistic expression as we age.  What’s worse, many of us are taught in elementary school that poetry – the ideal again – is the deepest possible expression of self.  Language is the medium of thought, and poetry is the art of language.  Lerner suggests that, in giving up on poems, there comes a nagging sensation that we are giving up on ourselves.

Why wouldn’t we hate an art that hurts us this way?

In Lerner’s words,

Great poets confront the limits of actual poems, tactically defeat or at least suspend that actuality, sometimes quit writing altogether, becoming celebrated for their silence; truly horrible poets unwittingly provide a glimmer of virtual possibility via the extremity of their failure; avant-garde poets hate poems for remaining poems instead of becoming bombs; and nostalgists hate poems for failing to do what they wrongly, vaguely claim poetry once did. one thing all these demands share is that they can’t ever be fulfilled with poems.  Hating on actual poems, then, is often an ironic if sometimes unwitting way of expressing the persistence of the utopian ideal of Poetry, and the jeremiads in that regard are defenses, too.

I can understand why a published poet like Lerner would put forward these arguments.  But I don’t agree, in large part because most people I’ve talked to sincerely enjoy poetry – ever since graduating from high school, that is, when poems were hated for being foisted upon us.  Among adults, I’ve found a dislike of poetry to be exceedingly rare.

Not many people gravitate specifically toward lyric poetry, though, especially not the sort that is featured alongside Lerner’s bio for the Poetry Foundation website.  But I believe the unpopularity of this type of poetry, with lines like “Emulsions with / Then circled the lake like / This is it.” (from Lerner’s “[By any measure]”) or “jumpsuits, they have changed / painting, I / behind the concertina wire / can’t look at it anymore …” (from Lerner’s “[jumpsuits]”), is not caused primarily by dissonance between actual poems and a reader’s pedestaled ideal.  I’d add an asymmetry of trust to the litany of offenses of which poetry stands accused in Lerner’s monograph.

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janaI do not mean to impugn asymmetry in general.  For instance, consider this beautiful passage from Jana Prikryl’s “Thirty Thousand Islands”:

Because the moon’s mass is a considerable fraction

of the earth’s, it exerts a gravitational force

on oceans as it orbits overhead, producing the

tides, or put another way, you can stand

on the shore twice daily and witness the very

water flinging itself upwards.

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This verse is secretly a paean to asymmetry.  Water has an electric dipole moment – it is asymmetric – with oppositely-charged ends attracting each other like so many microscopic magnets.  This allows water to move and flow cohesively, one molecule tugging the next along their shared path.  But the physicist and Nobel laureate Philip Warren Anderson, who made great advances in our understanding of asymmetry, writes that, as a graduate student, “this seemed very strange to me, because I was just being taught that nothing has an electric dipole moment.

Anderson elaborates:

The professor was really proving that no nucleus has a dipole moment, because he was teaching nuclear physics, but as his arguments were based on the symmetry of space and time they should have been correct in general.

I soon learned that, in fact, they were correct (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say not incorrect) because he had been careful to say that no stationary state of a system (that is, one which does not change in time) has an electric dipole moment. 

In quantum mechanics there is always a way, unless symmetry forbids, to get from one state to another.  Thus, if we start from any one unsymmetrical state, the system will make transitions to others, so only by adding up all the possible unsymmetrical states in a symmetrical way can we get a stationary state.

According to the laws of physics, the world should be symmetric.  And in the long run – on time scales that leave us dead and the Earth barren and the sun cold, impossibly far from any other source of light – the world is.  At any moment, however, objects may exhibit a temporary asymmetry (with this temporary state sustained perhaps for billions of years).  This asymmetry gives us our world.  Water that flows.  Water capable of “flinging itself upward” with the tides.

The very stars in the sky depend upon asymmetry.  According to the laws of physics, the Big Bang should’ve birthed equal amounts matter and antimatter, rapidly coalescing into nothing.  And yet, in our universe, matter predominates.  We live.

orlando-sentinelBut asymmetry in human relations can be harder to bear than the (world-enabling) asymmetries of nature.  At first blush, we thought the internet would be a great equalizer, giving a voice to all.  Instead, the increasing quantity of stuff out there has served to concentrate attention further on a dwindling number of foci.  So many in the modern world flail, shouting into the void, aspiring to fame.  The Orlando shooter checked Facebook during his crime, verifying that his humanity (at its worst) had finally been recognized.  For a moment – gun in his hand, eyes on his phone – he was as important as Beyonce.

This asymmetry is stark in poetry.  The greatest poets use language in idiosyncratic ways: they bend the rules of grammar, they use words as though their definitions were somewhat skew to those organized dissections found in dictionaries.  And readers of these poems work to understand why.  Readers at times treat great poems as puzzles: told that this combination of words is beautiful, a reader might dust and scrape with the care of an archaeologist, searching for the wellspring of that beauty.

Consider the lines I quoted from Lerner’s own work above, with constructions like “emulsions with then circled the lake” and “they have changed painting, I behind the concertina wire can’t look at it anymore.”  This is not the grammar of high school English teachers.

gilbertLerner, of course, has reasons for employing these constructions.  Just as Jack Gilbert had reasons for his choice of the adverb “commonly” in the line, “commonly I prepare for death” (from “In Between Poems”).  Just as William Shakespeare had reasons for inventing language when no existing words fit his needs.

But if average people – the uncredentialed readers of poetry – were to use words in these ways, their choices would be considered mistakes.  They are taught to trust established poets, to presume positive intent and tease out why a published poem sounds the way it does, but their own idiosyncrasies would not receive the same presumption.

This seems especially true for the people with whom I read poems most often.  Twice a week, some dozen inmates at the county jail join a co-teacher and me for poetry class.  Not every poem we bring has immediate, intuitive appeal.  But even when discussing difficult material, the men work to understand why a piece might have been written the way it was.  Then, when given paper and pencils, these men pour themselves into their own writing, for reasons Lerner well understands:

I also received multiple letters from prisoners who felt poetry publication was their best available method for asserting they were human beings, not merely criminals.  I’m not mocking these poets; I’m offering them as examples of the strength of the implicit connection between poetry and the social recognition of the poet’s humanity.  It’s an association so strong that the writers in question observe no contradiction in the fact that they are attempting to secure and preserve their personhood in a magazine that no one they know will see.

Incarcerated writers do dream that their words could allow someone to see them as human.  During one of our recent classes, TC told me that he’d seen a commercial on the jail television showing caged dogs in the pound with a voiceover saying “No animal deserves to be treated this way.”  He looked left, looked right, and started wondering: where is our commercial?

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And I’m by no means arguing that the poems written by men in jail are all great, or even good.  Drug addiction in southern Indiana has swept up all sorts, but people with money can bond out, lawyer up, and fight their cases from the outside.  They tend to win, landing treatment instead of time.  Our pay-to-play criminal justice system reserves jail for the poor.  Given the paucity of services our nation offers to impoverished children, and the underfunded state of our public schools, shunting un-aided kids straight from uncomfortable desk to uncomfortable cell, jails are full of luckless individuals who never had much scholastic success.

When inmates write, many of their poems are utter clunkmonsters, vague and sloppy and misspelled.  The men force rhymes, having conflated the concepts “poem” and “children’s book.”  Sometimes they’ll pour out saccharine repentance as though my co-teacher and I were allied with the state, rather than volunteering our time simply because this country inflicts mass incarceration on our behalf and has made us feel ashamed.  And it can be a battle convincing dudes who’ve been told over and over again “You’re bad!” that when we suggest they revise a poem, it means we liked it.

But sometimes their work is lovely.

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On a Friday afternoon last August, the men were in a particularly rotten mood.  Technological doodads break in the jail just like anywhere else, and a security camera on the fritz meant they’d been on lockdown all week.  Usually they have access to a common area and can play cards or pace back and forth, but “lockdown” means being confined to those little cells twenty-four hours a day.

Tensions were high.  And when we decided to take a few minutes for a writing prompt, they snapped.

“Nobody’s gonna read anything I write!  This won’t change shit!”

Grim.  And arguably untrue.  But…

“They’re not gonna do anything till we pull some ISIS shit, start taking off people’s heads!”

At which point my co-teacher flipped: “Fuck you, man, no.  You say shit like that, they’re gonna cancel this class.  And it’s not even fucking true.  I mean, look at this… we’re here, right?  And Frank and I are here because of shit we read.  You write it well, people will read, it will change things.”

I was nodding, although I have to admit: there’s a lot out there to read.  It’s hard for any writer to be noticed, let alone somebody pegged as an uneducated fuck-up – a criminal from southern Indiana – right off the bat.  The battle for attention can be nightmarish, giving rise to phenomena like that Orlando shooting… or the election of Donald Trump.

I have to admit: even if people do read the poems written by incarcerated men from our classes, nobody will work to understand.  These men are forced to write with one hand behind their backs, so to say.  Linguistic flourishes that would seem striking from another would be considered mistakes.

A reader must extend trust to be willing to work.  But if we trusted these men, they wouldn’t live like they do: mired in cages not fit for dogs.  Then booted out broke, job-less, home-less, med-less, into a probationary existence with far more rules than other citizens must abide by.

And yet these men dig poems.

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Lerner is correct: they’re not always keen on the abstruse lyrical sort.  That distaste seems fair.  I pray that they can one day write compelling narratives that will help change the world.  But if these uncredentialed, MFA-less men wrote tricksy lyrics, flaunting rules like Lerner does?  Then they’d be right.  Nobody would read their shit.

In their shoes (lace-less orange crocs, hosed down and issued to some new sap straight from the off-putting feet of the recently released), I too might hate lyric poetry.

On love and physics.

On love and physics.

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Portrait of Max from 812 Magazine.

I recently attended a singer-songwriter’s performance with my buddy Max.  I have difficulty sitting still, so I’d brought paper and some markers to draw horrible cartoons while we listened.

After the show, Max and I caught up.  We briefly mentioned our work (he is building things; I am alternating between typing, reading children’s books, and spraying down my popsicle-sticky kids with a hose) and started hashing philosophy.  Max digs the old stuff – he’s currently reading Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things, which speculates on both the existence of atoms and reasons why we are conscious.

I told him once that K won’t let me talk about free will at parties, so Max often goads me into it.  He’s always loved the image of K hovering with a flyswatter, waiting for me to broach her ire by describing the experiment that would disprove the existence of free will.  “We can’t do it yet, but if a non-destructive brain scan at sufficient molecular accuracy … “ SWAT!

Hugh-EverettI described Hugh Everett’s many-worlds interpretation of quantum wave-function collapse – the idea that with every coin-flip, the universe splits into two and time keeps marching on with the coin having landed both heads and tails.  A lot of physicists like dispensing with probability and randomness.  Not me – I think the world needs a little chaos.  Even if our choices were totally unpredictable, we might not have free will, but if the universe was predictable, sensible and orderly, then we definitely wouldn’t be free.

If you feel like you have free will, that’s almost the same as having it – but how free would you feel if researchers could strap you into a scanner and predict your fate more impeccably than any fortuneteller?

And then, because Max and I always bring up Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus when we discuss the meaning of life, we had to talk about the experiment that would let you prove Everett’s theory (but only to yourself).  I’ve written about this previously, in an essay on my father-in-law and the science of resurrection, but the shorthand description of the experiment is “quantum-mechanical suicide.”

If every coin flip created a new world, and inside one your consciousness would be extinguished before you learned the result of the flip, then you could only consciously perceive yourself as experiencing the other outcome.  Someone could flip a coin hundreds of times and you’d always see it landing heads, if the you inside every tails world was instantly ablated.

I was scribbling out diagrams, jotting numbers, and drawing an experimental apparatus with a research subject exploding into flames.  Max leaned back, folded his arms over his chest, and mused, “But what I want to know is where love comes into it.”

I added a few more jagged flames, then set down my pen.

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Photo by Shena Pamela on Flickr.

Look, I’m a clever dude.  I’ve always been good at math, despite having taken very few math classes.  I’m well read, hard working, and adept at solving puzzles.  But I was never the best with emotions.  Before I had kids, nobody would’ve mistaken me for any sort of love expert.

I stuttered a little, then described quantum entanglement (also referred to as “spooky action at a distance” – Jim Holt wrote a lovely essay for the New York Review of Books about it).  Particles that are linked stay linked.

Max shook his head.  We both knew that wasn’t really love.

But I’m a cold, rational scientist.  Max trusts his intuition that something mystical is happening in the world.  What kind of explanation might satisfy us both?

So we tried again.  The world is real.  There is, as best we can tell, a single, objective reality surrounding us.  But our consciousness has no access to that world.

In reality, the computer I’m typing this essay on is composed of mostly empty space.  Electrons flit blurrily around atomic nuclei – when I reach toward the keys, electrons in my fingertips are repelled, giving me the illusion that the computer is solid.  One by one receptors in the cone cells of my eyes interact with incident photons, letting me believe that I am constantly seeing a room full of smooth, hard surfaces.  My consciousness gobbles sensory data and creates a representation of the world.

And it’s within those representations that we live.  Some philosophers question why humans are conscious.  Others speculate that iPhones have consciousness as well.  Just like us, a modern telephone integrates a wide variety of external perceptions into its conception of the world.

In any case, because we live within our perception of the world, as opposed to the world per se, love really does change the universe.  By opening ourselves up to the world, we suddenly find ourselves to be inside a different world.  A physicist might not notice the difference after you let yourself love – but that physicist isn’t inside your head.  A physicist’s truth is not always the truth that matters.

Which I am very grateful to Max for teaching me.

Header image from The Scientific Cartoonist.

On a guaranteed basic income.

On a guaranteed basic income.

For several months, a friend and I have volleyed emails about a sprawling essay on consciousness, free will, and literature.

Brain_powerThe essay will explore the idea that humans feel we have free will because our conscious mind grafts narrative explanations (“I did this because…”) onto our actions. It seems quite clear that our conscious minds do not originate all the choices that we then take credit for. With an electroencephalogram, you could predict when someone is about to raise an arm, for instance, before the person has even consciously decided to do so.

Which is still free will, of course. If we are choosing an action, it hardly matters whether our conscious or subconscious mind makes the choice. But then again, we might not be “free.” If an outside observer were able to scan a person’s brain to sufficient detail, all of that person’s future choices could probably be predicted (as long as our poor study subject is imprisoned in an isolation chamber). Our brains dictate our thoughts and choices, but these brains are composed of salts and such that follow the same laws of physics as all other matter.

That’s okay. It is almost certainly impossible that any outside observer could (non-destructively) scan a brain to sufficient detail. If quantum mechanical detail is implicated in the workings of our brains, it is definitely impossible: quantum mechanical information can’t be duplicated. Wikipedia has a proof of this “no cloning theorem” involving lots of bras and kets, but this is probably unreadable for anyone who hasn’t done much matrix math. An easier way to reason through it might be this: if you agree with the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, the idea that certain pairs of variables cannot be simultaneously measured to arbitrary precision, the no cloning theorem has to be true. Otherwise you could simply make many copies of a system and measure one variable precisely for each copy.

So, no one will ever be able to prove to me that I am not free. But let’s just postulate, for a moment, that the laws of physics that, so far, have correctly described the behavior of all matter outside my brain also correctly describe the movement of matter inside my brain. In which case, those inviolable laws of physics are dictating my actions as I type this essay. And yet, I feel free. Each word I type feels like a choice. My brain is constantly concocting a story that explains why I am choosing each word.

Does the same neural circuitry that deludes me into feeling free – that has evolved, it seems, to constantly sculpt narratives that make sense of our actions, the same way our dreams often burgeon to include details like a too hot room or a ringing telephone – also give me the ability to write fiction?

In other words, did free will spawn The Iliad?

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The essay is obviously rather speculative. I’m incorporating relevant findings from neuroscience, but, as I’ve mentioned, it’s quite likely that no feasible experiments could ever test some of these ideas.

The essay is also unfinished. No laws of physics forbid me from finishing it. I’m just slow because K & I have two young kids. At the end of each day, once our 2.5 year old and our 3 month old are finally asleep, we exhaustedly glance at each other and murmur, “Where did the time go?”

tradersBut I am very fortunate to have a collaborator always ready to nudge me back into action. My friend recently sent me an article by Tim Christiaens on the philosophy of financial markets. He sent it because the author argues – correctly, in my opinion – that for many stock market actions it’s sensible to consider the Homo sapiens trader + the nearby multi-monitor computer as a single decision-making entity. Tool-wielding is known to change our brains – even something as simple as a pointing stick alters our self-perception of our reach. And the algorithms churned through by stock traders’ computers are incredibly complex. There’s not a good way for the human to check a computer’s results; the numbers it spits out have to be trusted. So it seems reasonable to consider the two together as a single super-entity that collaborates in choosing when to buy or sell. If something in the room has free will, it would be the tools & trader together.

Which isn’t as weird as it might initially sound. After all, each Homo sapiens shell is already a multi-species super-entity. As I type this essay, the choice of which word to write next is made inside my brain, then signals are sent through my nervous system to my hands and fingers commanding them to tap the appropriate keys. The choice is influenced by all the hormones and signaling molecules inside my brain. It so happens that bacteria and other organisms living in my body excrete signaling molecules that can cross the blood-brain barrier and influence my choice.

The milieu of intestinal bacteria living inside each of us gets to vote on our moods and actions. People with depression seem to harbor noticeably different sets of bacteria than people without. And it seems quite possible that parasites like Toxoplasma gondii can have major influences on our personalities.

CaptureIndeed, in his article on stock markets, Christiaens mentions the influence of small molecules on financial behavior, reporting that “some researchers study the trader’s body through the prism of testosterone levels as an indicator of performance. It turns out that traders who regularly visit prostitutes consequently have higher testosterone levels and outperform other traders.”

Now, I could harp on the fact that we designed these markets. That they could have been designed in many different ways. And that it seems pretty rotten to have designed a system in which higher testosterone (and the attendant impulsiveness and risky decision-making) would correlate with success. Indeed, a better, more equitable market design would probably quell the performance boost of testosterone.

I could rant about all that. But I won’t. Instead I’ll simply mention that Toxoplasma seems to boost testosterone. Instead of popping into brothels after work, traders could snack on cat shit.

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On the topic of market design, Christiaens also includes a lovely description of the interplay between the structure of our economy and the ways that people are compelled to live:

The reason why financial markets are able to determine the viability of lifestyles is because most individuals and governments are indebted and therefore need a ‘creditworthy’ reputation. As the [U.S.] welfare state declined during the 1980s, access to credit was facilitated in order to sustain high consumption, avoid overproduction and stimulate economic growth. For Lazzarato [a referenced writer], debt is not an obligation emerging from a contract between free and equal individuals, but is from the start an unequal power relation where the creditor can assert his force over the debtor. As long as he is indebted, the latter’s rights are virtually suspended. For instance, a debtor’s property rights can be superseded when he fails to reimburse the creditor by evicting him from his home or selling his property at a public auction. State violence is called upon to force non-creditworthy individuals to comply. We [need] not even jump to these extreme cases of state enforcement to see that debt entails a disequilibrium of power. Even the peaceful house loan harbors a concentration of risk on the side of the debtor. When I take a $100,000 loan for a house that, during an economic crisis, loses its value, I still have to pay $100,000 plus interests to the bank. The risk of a housing crash is shifted to the debtor’s side of the bargain. During a financial crisis this risk concentration makes it possible for the creditors to demand a change of lifestyle from the debtor, without the former having to reform themselves.

Several of my prior essays have touched upon the benefits of a guaranteed basic income for all people, but I think this paragraph is a good lead-in for a reprise. As Christiaens implies, there is violence behind all loans – both the violence that led to initial ownership claims and the threat of state violence that compels repayment. Not that I’m against the threat of state violence to compel people to follow rules in general – without this threat we would have anarchy, in which case actual violence tends to predominate over the threat of incipient enforcement.

We all need wealth to live. After all, land holdings are wealth, and at the very least each human needs access to a place to collect fresh water, a place to grow food, a place to stand and sleep. But no one is born wealthy. A fortunate few people receive gifts of wealth soon after birth, but many people foolishly choose to be born to less well-off parents.

The need for wealth curtails the choices people can make. They need to maintain their “creditworthiness,” as in Christiaens’s passage, or their hire-ability. Wealth has to come from somewhere, and, starting from zero, we rely on others choosing to give it to us. Yes, often in recompense for labor, but just because you are willing and able to do a form of work does not mean that anyone will pay you for it.

Unless people are already wealthy enough to survive, they are at the mercy of others choosing to give them things. Employers are not forced to trade money for salaried working hours. And there isn’t wealth simply waiting around to be claimed. It all starts from something – I’d argue that all wealth stems originally from land holdings – but the world’s finite allotment of land was claimed long ago through violence.

A guaranteed basic income would serve to acknowledge the brutal baselessness of those initial land grabs. It is an imperfect solution, I know. It doesn’t make sense to me that everyone’s expenses should rise whenever a new child is born. But a world where people received a guaranteed basic income would be better than one without. The unluckily-born populace would be less compelled to enter into subjugating financial arrangements. We’d have less misery – feeling poor causes a lot of stress. We’d presumably have less crime and drug abuse, too, for similar reasons.

And, of course, less hypocrisy. It’s worth acknowledging that our good fortune comes from somewhere. No one among us created the world.

On Stephon Alexander’s ‘The Jazz of Physics.’

On Stephon Alexander’s ‘The Jazz of Physics.’

640px-SantaWithKids2014Instead of standing in front of a discount mall Santa and pretending to smile while somebody snaps our photo, my family records an album to send as our holiday card. Usually thirty minutes or so of original music played by family and friends.

The music isn’t always radio quality — though my younger brother, sister-in-law, cousin, uncle, and grandfather are professional musicians, the rest of us are decided amateurs — but we have fun making it.

Eight to ten songs a year, over the course of a decade, eats up a lot of ideas. Some evenings my brother and I would dither after everyone else went to bed. For 2013‘s Curse of the Ratist, our dithering included bowing a bass guitar hung on a wall mount. We aimed a microphone at a picture frame hung from that same wall some seven feet away. 

You can bow a wide variety of objects and get interesting sounds. Violins, sure, but also any saw from the hardware store (which can give very human-like vocal tones), cymbals (these are lovely because they sound like sci-fi UFO landings… but be sure to ask first, because drummers will get upset if your rosin makes their cymbals sticky), the bell of some horns. Friction from the bow starts the object vibrating, and a vibrating object will push and pull at the nearby air, creating a traveling sound wave.

Or friction from a bow might start strings vibrating, which shakes the body of a bass, which shakes the wall it’s hanging from, which shakes a picture frame, which pushes and pulls the air, ready to be amplified by a microphone’s diaphragm. But the basic idea — an object wobbles back and forth to make sound — is the same.

Vibrations underly the workings of many aspects of the world. During college, I worked on a research project for a theoretical physicist who was curious whether residual vibrational energy contributed to DNA strand breaks. I scoff whenever I hear talk about a cure for cancer — “cancer” is an umbrella term to describe the inevitable imperfections that accumulate when you copy something over and over — but it is feasible to reduce the rate at which humans develop cancer. DNA strand breaks are one of the causes.

The research I was doing wasn’t going to save anyone, though. I was modeling a scenario in which electricity flows through the stacked bases as though a strand of DNA were a wire. The excess charge would cause each base it touched to change shape… then, when the charge jumped off, the base would return to its original shape. It would start vibrating. Can that vibrational energy transfer to the phosphate backbone and cause a strand to break?

Um, no. Probably not. After I’d worked on the project for about a year, I finally did a bunch of background reading and realized that our hypothesis was misguided. I was doing fancy calculations to model a process that almost certainly didn’t happen. Oops!

I did learn that it’s better to do research first, then work. Now I spend some two thirds of my work time reading, one third typing. I’d rather not waste another year.

Still, it was reasonable for my professor to think that vibrations would be involved. All matter has a wave-like nature. Vibrations rule the world.

23588787296_52d9799808_zIn The Jazz of Physics, Stephon Alexander likens all vibrations to music. For instance, the nucleation of stars and galaxies from the homogeneous superheated cloud that burst into being in the Big Bang. My preferred analogy for this process is the concept of “snowballing” in game design — a small early advantage gives a player a boost throughout the game, making that player a clear favorite to win.

If you start with a large enough cloud of homogeneous gas — a universe-sized cloud — quantum fluctuations will cause some regions to be slightly more dense than others. These dense regions will then suck in neighboring molecules because they have a little bit of extra gravity. Over time, the inequality will grow: the rich get richer. But, in this case, that’s a good thing. It means galaxies can form.

Alexander’s preferred analogy is to music. He likens the early universe, with its pressure density waves, to an instrument.

And what does the CMB [cosmic background radiation] actually sound like? Some cosmologists have turned the frequencies of the CMB into sound, and though it is not very musical, it is not pure noise either. What is fascinating is there was an original quantum sound, which caused the first primordial vibrations in the plasma [that homogeneous cloud of gas that filled the early universe], and though this sound is categorized as white noise, its beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.

I find this analogy to be a stretch. But some of the others Alexander presents are lovely. For instance, his description of the interaction energy between neighboring spins in a magnetic material:

On the other hand, when neighboring spins disagreethere is more interaction energy caused by the tension between the disagreeing spins. One can imagine two people in a discussion. If they agree, there will be less to discuss, less interaction. If they disagree, they will interact more, trying to shift the other’s viewpoint.

I’ll definitely use his analogy the next time I teach this! Alexander found a clever similarity between two concepts, and that similarity will help others understand the idea from physics.

Whereas the analogy between cosmology and music, though clever, doesn’t seem like it’ll help many people learn physics. I know a fair bit about both music theory and physics, and I still struggled at times to follow Alexander’s logic.

I was also sad to see a bit of the physics presented incorrectly. For instance, his explanation of the photoelectric effect, for which Einstein won the Nobel Prize. Alexander writes that, until the early 1900s,

640px-Photoelectric_effect.svgphysicists thought a beam of light was like water coming out of a hose. If the volume of water is increased, the water will have more momentum. The same behavior was expected of light waves. But something different was seen in the photoelectric effect: no matter how intense the light, the same number of electrons came flying out. However, increasing the frequency of the light — essentially, making it bluer — caused the light to hit more electron homeruns. Two conclusions were drawn from this experiment:

1. Depending on the situation, light can behave like either a wave or a particle.

2. The kinetic energy that a beam of light imparts to electrons is related to the frequency of the light and not the intensity.

It’s true that, with low energy light, increasing the intensity won’t change the number of electrons flying out. With low-intensity, low-energy light, zero electrons will be ejected, and with high-intensity, low-energy light, you’ll still get zero. But as long as you’re using the right color of light (i.e., short wavelength), the number of electrons ejected is proportional to intensity. That’s how photomultiplier tubes work.

The kinetic energy that one photon imparts to one electron is a function of the frequency of light. The kinetic energy that a beam of photons imparts to electrons is a function of both the frequency and the intensity of light.

And a few of the supposed parallels between music and physics threw me. Alexander quotes the jazz saxophonist Mark Turner as saying, “When I’m in the middle of a solo, whenever I am most certain of the next note I have to play, the more possibilities open up for the notes that follow.” This is something many people can relate to. Too many options can be daunting. When a few constraints are imposed — guidelines for a project, or musical traditions that identify one note as “making sense” to play next whereas others would not — most people find they can be more creative. When I give the dudes in my writing class a prompt that’s too open-ended, a lot of them stare at their blank sheets of paper without writing anything.

But I have trouble relating the freedom & creativity that a little bit of structure engenders (maybe I should’ve turned this into an analogy about parenting instead) to the uncertainty principle.

Still, it was a fun little book. If you’re somebody who loves both music and physics, you might want to check it out.

On time-traveling information and quantum mechanics.

Screenshot from that Facebook-linked article you all saw recently.
Screenshot from that Facebook-linked article you might have seen recently.

K (who is better at reading the internet than I am) asked me, “Have you seen all those reports about future actions dictating the past?”

I promptly rolled my eyes.  Thinking, which ones?  Because there are a lot of “scientific” studies of that ilk.  One of my favorites (“favorite” here meaning “most laughably silly) is the psychology study demonstrating that people remember words better if they will study them after being quizzed as to which they remember.

Which would be a neat trick — a kid could say, “Please, God, let me know the right answers on this test and I promise I’ll study the material as soon as I get home,” and it would work!

It doesn’t.  Of course not.  What Bem demonstrated in his paper, “Feeling the future: Experimental evidence for anomalous retroactive influences on cognition and affect,” is that our current academic publishing system (wherein researchers are rewarded only for novel results, and particularly counter-intuitive novel results) is suboptimal for the real pursuit of scientific knowledge.  If researchers are allowed to collect lots of data, analyze that data with statistical tests for p-values, and report only what works… then it’s easy to find counter-intuitive results.  Those results will also generally be not true.

The other interesting finding that came from Bem’s work was also related to academic publishing: even if a result is blatantly untrue, it’s difficult to correct the scientific literature.  Several researchers wasted their time attempting to reproduce Bem’s result, and as expected they found that none of the work was correct … but then they could not publish their findings.  Their rejection from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology read, “This journal does not publish replication studies, whether successful or unsuccessful.”

Anyway, that’s the kind of “science” I was expecting when K asked if I’d seen the new study on future events dictating the past.

I was wrong.  She was talking about a pretty standard quantum mechanics experiment, one postulated a few decades ago, conducted with photons in 2007, and conducted with helium atoms recently.

The basic gist of why these are described as “mind blowing”: there are numerous results in quantum mechanics that can seem silly if you think of objects as being either particle or wave and somehow “choosing” which to be at any given time.  Matter has a wave nature, and the behavior we think of as particle-like arises from the state of an object being linked to the state of other objects.  The common phrasing for this is to say that observation causes a shift from wave-like to particle-like behavior, but the underlying explanation is that our observational techniques result in a state-restricting coupling.

Quantum mechanics is difficult to write about using English-language metaphors — translating from the language of mathematics into English seems to have all the problems of translating between two spoken languages, and then some — but here’s a crude way to think about this type of result:

If you’re standing with your back to two narrow hallways (sufficient for only one person to walk through at a time) and a friend walks through and taps you on the shoulder, you won’t know which hallway your friend came through.  Unless your friend tells you.  Let’s just imagine that your friend is as cagey with his or her secrets as the average helium atom tends to be.

Here is a Roguelike diagram of our thought experiment... in case you haven't played many roguelikes (for shame!  You should try Brogue! https://sites.google.com/site/broguegame/]), you are the @, the F is your friend, the B is your buddy, and those octothorpes are single-person-wide hallways.
Here is a Roguelike diagram of our thought experiment… in case you haven’t played many roguelikes (for shame! You should try Brogue!), you are the @, the F is your friend, the B is your buddy, and those octothorpes are single-person-wide hallways.

If your friend then leaves, however, and at the same time a second buddy of yours walks through to tap you on the shoulder and say hello, then your friend’s history becomes coupled to this second buddy’s.  If your friend walked through the northern hallway, your buddy had to be in the southern, and vice versa.  Their positions are coupled because they can’t occupy the same space at the same time. If you never ask who walked where, though, there’s a residual probability that each walked through each hallway — and if you ever query one, because their histories are coupled, the other’s history suddenly snaps into focus. No matter how far away that second person might be.  Learning which route either took tells you immediately about the other.

Not that this information is necessarily useful.  But perhaps you saw reports about faster-than-light-speed information travel between entangled objects.  The above example applies just as well (or as poorly, if you’re a stickler for accuracy or truth or what have you) to those studies as well.

In some ways this reminds me of the scene from Bottle Rocket, wherein a character is told “You’re like paper.  You know, you’re trash,” and then, “You know, you’re like paper falling by, you know… It doesn’t sound that bad in Spanish.”

A lot of results from quantum mechanics sound weird, but they don’t sound that weird in mathematics.

But I’ll admit that the way some of these results are written up in the popular press is bizarre.  Here’s a quote from Jay Kuo’s article (which K alerted me to after it was featured on George Takei’s webpage) about the recent helium atom experiment:

Screen shot from Tim Wogan's article.
Screen shot from Tim Wogan’s article.

“What they found is weirder than anything seen to date: Every time the two grates were in place, the helium atom passed through, on many paths in many forms, just like a wave.  But whenever the second grate was not present, the atom invariably passed through the first grate like a particle.  The fascinating part was, the second grate’s very existence in the path was random.  And what’s more, it hadn’t happened yet.”

From a passage like that, it’d be hard to tell that this is an experiment that was first conducted nearly a decade ago, and a result that was exactly what you’d expect.  Honestly, I had trouble even parsing the above paragraph, and could barely understand the experiment from the description given in the article. And I studied quantum mechanics! I spent my junior and senior years of college doing research in the field! (My research was on the electronic structure of DNA bases, not entanglement specifically, but still.) I don’t know how people without that background were supposed to follow the science here. Or get through it without their eyes glazing over.

So, as to people’s excitement about this result: it’s a little bit weirder to think about the wavelength of big things (“big” here meaning the helium atoms; they’re big compared to photons), but it’s mostly weird in English.  Or any other metaphor-based language.  Our day-to-day perceptions don’t yield the metaphorical fodder we’d need to properly describe these phenomena in words.

Because, yeah, I like to think that I’m sitting still in a chair, typing this.  But I have a wavelength too.  So do you.  You might be anywhere within the boundaries roughly transcribed by your wavelength!  And of course, there aren’t really any boundaries, because the probability of finding you in a place never quite drops to zero. Even if we consider locations far away from your moments-prior center of mass. But your probability peak on a likelihood vs. location graph is very, very steep.  You, my friend, are rather large: your wavelength is very small.

******************

p.s. If you happened across Jay Kuo’s article and were baffled, and would like an explanation that describes the experimental set-up used (I purposefully left out all the experimental details because I thought they’d distract from my two main points, that translating from mathematics to English is hard and inevitably introduces inaccuracies, and that for coupled pairs of objects [the real word for this is “entangled”] information can be transfered instantaneously), you could check out Tim Wogan’s summary on Physics World.  Wogan alludes to the idea that identifying the state of one object out of an entangled pair causes something reminiscent of faster-than-light travel:

“Indeed, the results of both Truscott and Aspect’s experiments [show] that [an object]’s wave or particle nature is most likely undefined until a measurement is made.  The other less likely option would be that of backward causation — that the particle somehow has information from the future — but this involves sending a message faster than light, which is forbidden by the rules of relativity.”

I don’t really like the use of the word “measurement” above (sure, I changed a few other words in that quotation, but only to improve readability — I didn’t want to change anything that might alter Wogan’s ideas), because to me this sounds excessively human-centric, as though quantum collapse couldn’t happen without us.

Over time, the state of an object can become coupled to the states of others (if two blue billiard balls collide, for instance, then you know that at some point in time they were in the same place) or uncoupled from the states of prior interaction partners (if one of those blue billiard balls then collides with a third red ball, the trajectories of the two blue balls will no longer be coupled).

In this double-slit experiment, the coupling between helium atom and detector (when the detector either chirups or doesn’t, that making-sound-or-not state is coupled to the position of the helium atom) which unveils information about objects entangled with the helium.

sherlock-holmes-462978_640Maybe this seems less confusing if you think about it in terms of progressively revealing clues instead of causing behavior?  But, again, the English descriptions are never going to exactly match the math.