Archive for July, 2008

aka Synchronicity?

July 25, 2008

  Hard, really, to find physics any less weird than most religions – at least once past robe and sandals expectations.  Example?  How about Bell’s Theorem.

  Remember how nothing can move faster than the speed of light?  That if a star blows up in a galaxy many light years distant, it would be impossible for us here on earth to know anything at all about the event until its light reached someone’s eyeballs some millions of years down the road? 

  OK, now one would thus suppose that if something happens here, there could be no instantaneously connected event over there.  Whether across the room or in that other galaxy.  Locality they call it.  Must be present to win.  That is what the theory of relativity holds.

  Well an aspect of quantum physics holds that there can indeed be “spooky action at a distance” as Einstein put it.  That part of the theory is what caused him (with two colleagues) to write “Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Physical Reality be Considered Complete” in 1935.  He never did buy in.

  Quantum theory was developed before there were means by which to test many aspects of it.  But a theorem developed by John Stewart Bell in 1964 and experiments in particle physics since have shown that an event here can in fact be subtly entwined with one way over there.    

  Physicist Brian Greene makes an analogy using dice.  An identical pair is separated – one goes to Vegas and one to Monte Carlo.  They are repeatedly thrown at exactly the same time.  If ‘entwined’ they somehow always come up the same.  No one has yet figured out how or why.

  David Harrison, a professor at the University of Ontario commented in an essay that: “Bell’s Theorem is the most profound discovery of science… not just physics, but all of science”.  At the end he notes that it would force Einstein to accept Quantum Physics were he still alive.

  And as Greene writes in his book The Fabric Of The Cosmos: “Numerous assaults on our conception of reality are emerging from modern physics…  Of those that have been experimentally verified, I find none more mind-boggling than the recent realization that our universe is not local.”

  Jeesh.

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Bell’s Theorem

July 18, 2008

  An old guide with features as sharp and chiseled as the rock ledge upon which he sat stared into the void.  His much younger companion ministered his smooth hands with tape and tincture of benzoin.

  Higher up, the youth, a “guide aspirant”, allowed as how the elder moved rather well for his age.  Indeed, he had so far been impressed.  There was no retort or response but for the crunch of rice cakes and gurgle of water from the canteen – water which had been scooped from the clear cold stream far below.

  Long before sunset the guide had prevailed upon the youth to take advantage of the broad ledge traversing both walls of the huge dihedral they were ascending.  Protestations as to the waste of yet available light were left echoing alone.

  Moreover, though the ledge on one side was flat and smooth, the other was roughly castellated.  The youth had remarked upon this fact and the related possibilities for a comfortable night.  To his then further dismay, the old guide insisted that they both watch the moon from amongst the blocks.

  Just after dawn, there was a terrible sound from high above.  Covering his head and face with his hands, the youth pressed himself to the back of the ledge and behind the now welcome hunks of orange granite.

  Thick with the smell of damnation, the dust cloud slowly cleared as the young man peered between his fingers to see the old man unmoved and beyond him unweathered rock where the opposite ledge had for millennia been.

Can You Hear Me?

July 11, 2008

  Ever see The Perfect Storm?  Remember near the end when it’s clear the end is near and the character played by Mark Wahlberg screams into the storm over the raging sea:  “Christina? Christina, can you hear me?  I don’t know if you can, but I’m talking to ya, baby.  Do you know how much I love you?  I loved you the moment I saw you.  I love you now, and I’ll love you forever.  No goodbye.  There’s only love, Christina.  Only love.”

  And then after the storm, after Bobby (Wahlberg’s character) and his colleagues have all perished, and after the memorial service, Christina recounts a recurring dream in which “all of a sudden there he is.  That big smile…” And he repeats the above word for word.  “And then he’s gone.  But he’s always happy when he goes.  So I know he’s gotta be okay.  Absolutely okay.”

  Sebastian Junger writes in the introduction to the book that “No dialogue was made up”.  So while the film is largely true to the book the last words to leave Bobby’s mouth in the movie are fiction, but Christina’s dream not.  No matter what, cool bit of antiphony, right? 

  The day after the last time I saw the movie, I read a note in Outside magazine about a book by Maria Coffey: Explorers of The Infinite which asked: “What is it with extreme athletes and paranormal experiences?”

  Had to buy the book.  Found it fascinating.  Coffey punctuates her work with views and explanation of mainstream science, but it is clear that she believe that there is indeed something else going on.

  During the course of reviewing historical accounts of and numerous interviews with folks living life on the edge: “I became increasingly convinced that extreme adventurers break the boundaries of what is deemed physically possible by pushing beyond human consciousness into another realm.”  

  She quotes Krishnamurti:  “A complex mind cannot find out the truth of anything, it cannot find out what is real – and that is our difficulty.  From childhood we are trained to conform, and we do not know how to reduce complexity to simplicity.  It is only the very simple and direct mind that can find the real, the true”. 

  Coffey tells the story of a couple who followed, on foot, a caribou herd for months and hundreds of miles way up in the Yukon.  Alone and vulnerable, they fell into rhythm with the pace of the life of the animals.  Some weeks in, they both began having dreams.  The dreams began coming true.  “Heuer and Allison believe it was the rigors of the journey that led to their dreams and the other inexplicable events that began to unfold.”

  The identical twin British mountaineer brothers, Adrian and Allan Burgess provide several fascinating anecdotes.  In one, Adrian, who didn’t often remember dreams and hadn’t thought about a certain dead alpinist friend for quite some time was visited by her in his sleep during early stages of an attempt on Nanga Parbat.  “Adrian, you’re with the wrong people, get the fuck out of there” she told him.  He was shaken and did leave.  Shortly thereafter the team was hit by an avalanche.

  It’s not all dreams.  There’s intuition.  “Jung described intuition as the perception of realities that are unknown to the conscious mind.”  Marlene Smith says: “Intuition is about our body translating the energy it picks up, animals listen to those physical messages, but most humans reason them away”.  Among other examples, Coffey cites evidence of unusual activities of some animals and primal people that spared them death from the Asian tsunami in December 2007. 

  In 1985 a mixed Spanish-Polish team of alpinists attempted Nanga Parbat.  They communicated in English over their two way radios.  During the descent there was a terrible storm and all “felt near death”.  After safely reaching base camp, they listened to the recordings of their conversations and were amazed that they were all speaking in their native languages – unintelligible to each other.  Yet during the actual event they understood one other perfectly.

  There are many more stories and much hypothesizing, but it’s hard at the very least to disagree with British climber John Porter who said: “I think the starting point for any sort of weirdness is life itself.  If we’re here, then it seems to me that anything is possible.” 

  After all, without even having to wade through the several bewildering mainstream explanations of the origin (or lack thereof) of our universe, it interesting to note that physicists do agree that the universe is made up of: 4% matter as we know it; 22% dark matter that we maybe know something about; and 74% something else yet to be determined. 

  Now that’s weird.

A robot couldn’t use a Ouiji Board, much less dream one up.

July 5, 2008

  In the Science Times section of the Jun 3, 2008 NYT there was an interesting series of predictions given by futurist Ray Kurzweil.  He has a decent track record and now posits that: solar power will be economical in ten years; soon there will be a drug that will let you eat whatever you want, and by 2050 “humans and/or machines [will] start evolving into immortal beings with ever-improving software”.

  Most interestingly, he predicts that by 2020 or so, with new tools including nanotechnology, gene sequencing, and brain scans etc, we will be “adding computers to our brains and building machines as smart as ourselves”.

  Another interesting fellow, V. S. Ramachandran does not agree.  He is a neuroscientist with impressive range having done research and written fascinating books about phantom limbs and consciousness; is (or was) on the board of directors of the San Diego Museum of Art in La Jolla; and lectured widely about art, perception, and the brain.  (Including at the National Council for Education of Ceramic Arts!)

  Ramachandran allows that a thinking feeling machine might one day be possible, but not a reverse engineered brain.  “My colleague Francis Crick used to say that God is a hacker, not an engineer.  You can do reverse engineering, but you can’t do reverse hacking.”

  I agree with Dr. Ramachandran. Think about it.  An immortal man/robot hybrid would not have thoughts about sex or death and since the primordial soup, evolution of life on the planet has been guided by pursuit of the former and avoidance of the latter.  Still is: look at any billboard.

  Furthermore, it’s the incredibly inscrutable array of connections and cross connections that has led to the invention of the wheel, penicillin, thermos bottles, crepes suzette, the push-up bra, and everything else.  Even experts can’t account for all the stuff they come up with. 

  For example, Irvin Yalom begins his book Existential Psychotherapy with an anecdote about a cooking class in which he and several friends had enrolled.  After repeated failures at home, he went back to the school to watch again. 

  He hadn’t originally noticed that the chef did more than simply follow a recipe.  She would taste, readjust, and even incorporate afterthoughts.  Thus, before even beginning to really convey his thoughts about existential psychodynamics, he admitted that while “Formal texts, journal articles, and lectures portray therapy as precise and systematic, … and a careful rational program… I believe deeply that when no one is looking, the therapist throws in the “real thing”.

  (BTW, the book is really interesting and his selection of cookware provocative:   “The existential position emphasizes a different kind of basic conflict: neither a conflict with suppressed instinctual strivings nor one with internalized significant adults, but instead a conflict that flows from the individual’s confrontation with the givens of existence… Death – Freedom – Existential Isolation – Meaninglessness. )

  Or to come at it from an entirely different perspective: in the June 21 edition of the Wall Street Journal, billionaire financier George Soros credited his success to his backaches.  “I would say that I basically have survived by recognizing my mistakes.  I very often used to get backaches due to the fact that I was wrong.  When I make the right decision, the backache goes away.

  As a final example of the irreplicability  of the gray matter in our skull I’m reminded of an issue of the New Yorker a few years back.  In it were an interview with Bill Gates and an article by Oliver Sacks about Temple Grandin, the autistic veterinarian who says she feels like an “anthropologist on Mars”.  It was impossible to read the two pieces and not recognize characteristics and mannerisms of each in the other.

  Like it or not, we’re dang complex.  Maybe unfigureoutable.