Archive for the ‘Cosmology’ Category


November 23, 2013


That’s a cresset.  A concave metal frame lined, in this case, with screening, fixed atop a pole, filled with combustible material, and set alight.  It is not difficult to imagine that a precursor apparatus was first developed not long after Prometheus and that the underlying motivation remained largely unchanged up to at least Colonial Williamsburg from whence came the model for what you see above.   It’s not ‘green’, but fun and was employed with great success to gain the attention of trick or treaters  a few steps more than the usual remove from our front door.

Thoughts of that flickering came to mind for some reason when reading about the findings recently released from NASA’s Kepler project – the search for earth like planets beyond our solar system.  Many questions are left to be answered, but, long story short, there could be a lot of ‘em out there.  Billions.  Programs like Science Friday on NPR had researchers arguing and foaming at the mouth by turns.  This here observer is left with the thought that it will likely be a long time till we will know if Goldilocks could really be out there.

Unless, that is, the SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) transmitting/listening devices that have been reoriented as a result of Kepler yield something interesting.  One researcher said that the amount of space scanned up till now, relative to what’s out there, is analogous to the draft of a single cup from the rest our planet’s waters and that the effort will be greatly refined based upon Kepler findings.  So, assuming that ET’s not already been here and left bemused, perhaps the redirected signals will be perceived by some entity able to detect them and respond more quickly than the multi light year distance would have us think possible.

Hope they’re friendly.  Hope they help us all with our wood chopping and water carrying obligations, as opposed to, say, annihilating us.  Steven Hawking and others point to the fate of native peoples subsequent to contact with cultures more advanced.  Not pretty.  But what, me worry?  Na.  Just as I turned to see birds dart about against wispy cirrus bathed in the soft pink light of dusk, a Pandora DJ spun a string rendition of the Beatles’ Blackbird*.  It’s Friday and I’ll soon be home with wife and little black princess Nellie.  Who knows how things really work?  The only people I trust say that they don’t.  Louis Kahn said that a great question is far more important than attempts to answer.  Yep.

cirrus 2

*You should listen to it.  On Three Fervent Travelers by Time for Three.

We Are Alive

August 3, 2012


 In the July 30, 2012 issue of The New Yorker there is an interesting profile of rocker Bruce Springsteen.  Interesting to me for something “wingman” guitarist Steve Van Zandt said.  Back in the day one was judged by how well he was able to duplicate play from the radio – “cord for cord, note for note.”

  “Bruce was never good at it.  He had a weird ear.  He would hear different chords, but he could never hear the right chords.  When you have that ability or inability, you immediately become more original.  Well, in the long run, guess what: in the long run, original wins.”

  OK big deal you say.  Well, Pythagoras found, more than 2500 years ago, that there is a mathematic correlation to music that pleases.  Vibrating strings of different lengths, but in certain ratios make sounds good to hear while other relationships will be dissonant. 

  Subsequent observations of the universe led him and his followers to wonder – if musical harmony could be described by numbers, why not the whole universe – a “harmony of spheres”?  An almost contemporaneous biography of Pythagoras held that elevated minds such as his could audibly perceive the music made by the regular motions of heavenly bodies.

   No question that math does an excellent job at describing the cosmos with such things as the Golden Ratio and Fibonacci Numbers being found in wide and disparate corners of it.  And through the ages, artists and musicians of all stripes have attempted to tease out methods of their employment that might yield grand success.

  To no avail.  “History has shown however, that the artists who have produced works of lasting value are precisely those who have broken away from academic precepts.”*  Duh again. OK.  But what is truly amazing to think about are these relationships on the grandest of scales. 

  Einstein showed that without the presence of matter or energy in the universe, there would be no space-time warp.  No gravity.  No harmony.  No dissonance.  No originality.  Perfection. Boring.  But, of course, not to worry.  There are inclusions, imperfections, noise.  As the Springsteen article is entitled: “We Are Alive”.

*Golden Ratio, Mario Livio

Go Figure

March 30, 2012


 Frank Lloyd Wright once said that: “a doctor can bury his mistakes, but an architect can only plant vines”. I’m sure that he’d agree though that plantings can also enhance good and great architecture.  After all, it was he who first used the word “organic” in a design related context.

  “Garden and Building may now be one.  In any good organic structure it is difficult to say where the garden ends and where the house begins or where the house begins and the garden ends… I am really an emissary of the ground…”*

  Well, in the photo above it is clear where building ends, but the effusion of color is all the more effective for that fact.  It’s a Canadian Redbud in front of the Public Library in Davenport, Iowa just a few blocks north of theMississippi River.  Yep, north.  The river flows east to west there for a stretch.

  The building was designed by Edward Durell Stone in 1969 and clearly recalls his Kennedy Center inWashington DC which went up in 1962.  I’ve always figured that DC’s cherry blossoms prefigured the DPL’s  redbuds.  Whatever, they look marvelous for a few days each spring.

  Furthermore, the ephemeration of twig and color before the geometrical background pattern brings to mind first how short will be our visit upon this bit of the cosmos and then just how incredibly it is all underpinned by mathematics.  Go figure.

*Frank Lloyd Wright, The Future of Architecture, 1953

Davenport Public Library

Kennedy Center

Don’t Light A Match

September 30, 2011


  Well, news from CERN has it that there are particles moving faster than the speed of light.  Sounds like a big deal given E=MC2 and all of that.  However, reading through the blogs, it seems that Einstein’s theory already allowed for neutrinos of the “Tachyonic” sort to exist always at faster than light. 

  Dang complicated though and they’d not theretofore been detected. Guess we’ll have to wait for review of the evidence to see what, if anything, new was discovered.  But don’t you wonder where this stuff comes from in the first place though?  Scientific insights I mean? Here’s what erstwhile Princeton Psych Prof Julian Jaynes had to say about it:

  “The picture of a scientist sitting down with his problems and using conscious induction and deductions is as mythical as the unicorn.  The greatest insights of mankind have come more mysteriously.  The literature is full of insights which have simply come from nowhere.*”  Said Einstein of his theory: “Suddenly the happiest thought of my life came to me”.  And “Why is it that I get my best ideas in the morning while I’m shaving?”

  Insights come when you stop thinking about the problem.  For example, years ago friends and I were encamped upon a glacier dreaming of first ascents up in the Interior Ranges of BC.  A storm set in and held us down for days.  One member of our party never left his tent and became more morose by the day.  Seriously depressed after several. 

  “We’re gonna die” he’d wail from inside his tent.  The situation wasn’t pleasant, but wasn’t that serious either.  Finally I decided to stick my head in and try to assuage his fears only to be nearly overcome with horrible odor of freeze-dried frijoles begotten methane.

  “Hey man” I said to him in recoil, “get the hell out of there and breathe some fresh air before you get really sick.  You got something muy bad goin’ on in there.  Don’t light a match.  Seriously.”  He moaned a bit, I persisted, and soon he emerged. 

   Five minutes later he was smiling.  Storm hadn’t broken, but his head was clear and he offered a few suggestions for elegant new routes of which no one had yet thought and which ended up years later with multiple stars in a guidebook.  Same here.  My best ideas always come  shazam while breathing outside air.

*From his Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind – to which I’ve previously and frequently referred.

**Gotta be honest.  I came up with some of this while perusing two books that’ll I’ll shortly wrap and give as birthday gifts:

The Courage to Create by Rollo May and Confronting the Quantum Enigma by David J. Kreiter.  And dang if, since I just bought them yesterday, I’m not going to have to go out and buy again for myself.

In His Image*

February 18, 2011

  On January 3, 1963 aired an episode of the Twilight Zone that I’ve not forgotten even though I was then not quite eleven years old.  My memory doesn’t always serve up perfection, but generally does well enough to summon up the gist. 

  We meet the chief protagonist, Alan Talbot, early on.  He seems to be going about his life in an average sort of way, but starts getting headaches and memory problems.  Visiting his hometown with his girlfriend he finds that nothing looks familiar.  Then, walking along a road confused, a car bumps him and he rolls into the ditch alongside.  Shaken, he stands up and checks for injuries. 

  Just before giving himself a clean bill of health, he examines an abrasion on his right forearm which strangely does not bleed.  We watch as he peels it back revealing lights and gears etc.  He’s a robot and no less astonished uncovering that fact than are we.


  Good story huh?  Well, it came to mind the other day when I read a paper written by Nick Bostrom, a professor in the Department of Philosophy at Oxford.  It’s serious, well wrought, and entitled “Are You Living In A Computer Simulation”.

  “This paper argues that at least one of the following propositions is true: (1) the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage; (2) any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof); (3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.”

  It is all too easy to understand statement (1), but it is not unreasonable to doubt (hope!) that’s (not) how the future will unfold.  For statement (2) to be the way things pan out Bostrom argues that all future civilizations must converge in their inability or unwillingness to undertake ‘ancestor-simulations’.

  Statement (3) is by far the most interesting.  Perhaps we are not in the fundament of reality.  Perhaps some zitty ubergeek is at the controls.  When he/she/it detects incipient awareness in one of us he/she/it rewinds and edits or maybe just sends us to a bar.

  Computing power has increased incredibly and the pace seems only to quicken.  Moore’s Law has shortened from eighteen to twelve months.  Watson, the supercomputer that just bested the Jeopardy human champs juggles 80 trillion calculations a second spread over ninety servers.  At least one big thinker, Ray Kurzweil, predicts that a PC sized machine will be able crunch that much that fast in a decade or less.

  Bostrom demonstrates that there are no theoretical limits to continued expansion.  In a posthuman stage of civilization, he posits, such a mature stage of technological development will make it possible to convert planets and other astronomical resources into enormously powerful computers.

  Extremely sophisticated simulations are employed today for all manner of undertakings.  It seems inevitable that our distant descendants would run simulations of their forebears.  Furthermore, …”if we don’t believe that we are currently living in a computer simulation, we are not entitled to believe that we will have descendants who will run lots of such simulations…”

  Implications?  No radical ramifications.  There might well be subtle modifications to our belief systems related to a desire to understand posthuman motivations, but “no tendency to make us ‘go crazy’”.  However, I guess I’d hope that they don’t run out of computer power or trip over the plug.    

*In His Image was the name of the Twilight Zone episode…

**Veracity of proposition (3) would ‘aha’ the manner in which mathematics perfectly describe the whole fabric of our universe.

***cf Post of 12/24/11 in which I discussed the concentric circles in the cosmic background radiation that Roger Penrose posits are vestiges of a former universe and how it might relate to “a Platonic world of abstract realities that can be discovered by human investigation, but are independent of human existence”.

****Here is Professor Bostrom’s paper.  Read it.  You’ll be blown away.


December 24, 2010


  Yup, just as you thought, the above image is evidence of a universe previous to the one in which we now find ourselves.  In a recently published paper, Roger Penrose (cf 12/18/09) and Vahe Gurzadyan theorized that these concentric circles are vestiges in the cosmic microwave background (CMB) of the cataclysmic end of the preceding cosmos in the collision of two supermassive black holes.

  A young universe is characterized by very significant homogeneity.  With time however, it becomes less uniform, objects coalesce, and (with luck?!) life appears and evolves.  Many cosmologists agree so far. 

  The new theory suggests (I think) that at the later stages of a universe, particles all become massless.  As they do, they begin to constitute black holes.  Ultimately, since massless particles must move at the speed of light and thus time would stand still, the universe becomes infinitely small.  The black holes explode, collide, and voila, big banged, the whole thing starts over again.

  Not surprisingly, other researchers posit different explanations for the recently discovered rings pictured above. Physics blogs are atwitter.  In the last entry I read on one however, Gurzadyan and Penrose say that: “…the low variance circles occur in concentric families, and this key fact cannot be explained as a purely random effect.  It is however a clear prediction of conformal cyclic cosmology”.

  Now, what really interests me is the relationship between the nature of the universe thus described and the nature of consciousness as described by Alan Wallace and others*.  They posit that there is a ‘substrate’ unstructured consciousness from which individual psyches arise and evolve.  “The human mind emerges from the unitary experience of the zero-point field of the substrate, which is prior to and more fundamental than the human, conceptual duality of mind and matter.”

  The substrate is layered above a “Platonic world of abstract realities that can be discovered by human investigation, but are independent of human existence”.  This concept has been advocated by respected physicists such as Wolfgang Pauli and “stems from an awareness of the unreasonable power of mathematics to describe the nature of physical processes.”

  Furthermore, Roger Penrose and many if not most others agree that “mathematical realities are not determined by physical experiment, but arrived at by mathematical investigation.  You don’t have to look far to find how math underpins our universe.

  Now for the best part.  Wallace describes how experience of the  Platonic archetype realm can be achieved.  The process begins with deep meditative contemplation of an archetypal form such as the concentric circles above.  No matter what you think by now, you have to admit it is interesting (and cool!) that patterns such as that atop this latest meander of mine can be found throughout our universe and at any scale.

*cf Post of 12/10/10 Nope I haven’t recently eaten any

**Hidden Dimensions, The Unification of Physics and Consciousness, B Alan Wallace, Columbia 2007

***To read about the Penrose/Gurzadyan theory of conformal cyclic cosmology start with the article on page 101 of the December 4, 2010 Economist.



The Endless Unknown

October 15, 2010


  In his work Lucian Freud conveys incredible emotional depth and complexity.  It should surprise no one that he is the grandson of Sigmund Freud and furthermore, for me, his oeuvre proves that the founder of psychoanalysis was on to something no matter what modern critics might say. 

  (L) Freud has said that: “Quality in art is inextricably bound up with emotional honesty”, which is not to say transparency.  He goes on: “The advantage of taking so long is that it allows me to include more than one expression”.  Ya  There’s a lot going on in the mind of the fellow above and it would take a lifetime of analysis or a lobotomy for any hope of eventual serenity.

  It is difficult to leave the gaze of a Freud subject such as the one above without, first, feeling the rumble of one’s own complexes.  The title of the picture above conveys this sense perfectly: “Reflection”.  Then, as you walk away, you realize that the frame of reference is much larger and you wonder about universal truths.

  Are there any?  I’ll bet that Freud would not be surprised to learn that recent research indicates that the laws of physics might not be consistent across the whole of our universe.  Or that some think that the human mind has reached its capacity for understanding the cosmos.  For the time being anyway.

  Juxtaposed with cave paintings or ancient petroglyphs carved into rock, Freud’s art embodies a sense of the degree to which consciousness has evolved thus far.  Oh, for a take some 10,000 years hence.  Try to imagine a state of mind holding an image of Freud in the same regard as we do not an ancient stick figure!

*The quotes have been drawn from an article in the 9/25/10 Economist.  Where else?

**The bit was a review of a new book I can’t wait to read: Man with a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud.  The author, Martin Gayford calls Freud “omnivorous” in his search for “weight, texture and irreducible uniqueness of what he sees”.  I know the feeling.  See 1/31/09 and 4/10/09 below.

***Interestingly, just as a face or the representation of one can project outwardly with great force, so can inwardly a simple facial tactile experience.  The relative density of neuronal connections on a face is huge.  A recent experiment showed that continuous tweaking of just one whisker on the muzzle of rat stroke victim was enough to stimulate sufficient redirected blood flow to alleviate major damage.  WSJ 7/27/10

****Cartoon from the NYT


Universe In A Grain Of Sand

May 7, 2010


  The April 2010 issue of National Geographic recounts research undertaken by John Bush and David Hu into the locomotion of those bugs that stroke silently across the surfaces of ponds and lakes – water striders.  Until these MIT grad students* looked into it, the thinking was that the insects created tiny waves that propelled them forward.

  That theory was first compromised by “Denny’s Paradox” which showed that wave propagation could not account for the movement of baby water striders because legs of the newly hatched are too short to make waves.  Applying mathematical analysis to high speed photography Bush and Hu found the truth to be entirely different. 

  The surface tension of the water allows the bugs to stand upon it without poking through.  Essentially, each foot makes an indentation in the surface much as would a human foot upon a trampoline thus also similarly imparting energy thereto.  Their middle legs use this energy to make themselves sort of bounce forward. 

  This reminds me of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.  It is the impression of matter, such as the earth, upon the fabric of space-time that makes for the motion of heavenly bodies.  In a sense, the moon rolls around the rim of the depression in the universe made by our little blue planet.  And us around the sun etc. 

  Just as the three dimensions of a pond develop energy by the actions of a bug upon it, so do the four of our universe by virtue of our presence in them.

  I think.

*Their work was first published in an MIT newsletter 8/6/03 and in the journal “Nature” the following day.

The Tyrant Next Door

April 23, 2010


 I don’t get lawns.  I mean, I’m glad I have one and I revel in its revivification each spring.  I’m just not particularly particular about its constitution.  Green is great, but green alone lacks drama and verve.  What is up with the incredible close cropped homogeneity that pervades most of suburbia? 

  Well (you read it here) it’s the outer manifestation of a sequestered  concern that there might not be order in our universe – which of course there is not.  At the beginning, for a moment, it was indeed highly organized.  Since, however, we’ve been hurtling toward ever greater disorder.  Entropy.  The universe is a mess, getting messier by the moment, and there’ll be no turning back the arrow of time.  Too bad, so sad.

  The more assiduous the lawn care, the more every blade in a lawn is identical and oriented just so, the more bottled up inner turmoil can logically be assumed to inhabit the owner determined to beat his little part of the planet into submission.  Just watch the reaction after a kid cuts a path and you’ll see what I mean.  Jeers and tears all out of proportion and to no good end.

  Makes me think of Thomas Hobbes.  His Leviathan, published in 1651, is perhaps the most important work of modern political theory.  In it Hobbes asserts the necessity of an iron fisted central authority strong enough to preclude civil disorder as well as to enable a credible defense. 

  It made certain sense back then, especially given the provenance of his thinking.  Told that the approach of the Spanish Armada jolted his mother into labor, he later said that “I was born the twin of fear.”  His point of perspective though didn’t allow him to foresee twentieth century totalitarianism and the associated agony and horror left in its wake.

  Sure, civil society must most certainly be.  But not to the point of heartlessness and cruelty.  As the Dalai Lama says, “The purpose of our lives is to be happy” and dandelions can help.  They are bits of beauty that arrive on their own, unannounced. If allowed, they can provide emotional counterpoint to Hobbes’ famous dictum that “life is nasty, brutish, and short”. 

  Walt Whitman, among others, would agree.  From Leaves of Grass:

Give me the splendid silent sun with all his beams full-dazzling,
Give me juicy autumnal fruit ripe and red from the orchard,
Give me a field where the unmow’d grass grows,
Give me an arbor, give me the trellis’d grape,
Give me fresh corn and wheat, give me serene-moving animals
  teaching content,
Give me nights perfectly quiet as on high plateaus west of
   the Mississippi, and I looking up at the stars,
Give me odorous at sunrise a garden of beautiful flowers where I
  can walk undisturbed.
Give me for marriage a sweet-breath’d woman of whom I should
  never tire,
Give me a perfect child, give me away aside from the noise of the
  world a rural domestic life,
Give me to warble spontaneous songs recluse by myself, for my own
  ears only,
Give me solitude, give me Nature, give me again O nature your
  primal sanities!

*Finally, I’m ecstatic to report that the January 2, 2010 Economist (what else?) tells us that dandelions “may yet make the big time”.  They might supplement or even replace Hevea brasiliensis which is the scientific name for the traditional rubber tree.  Can you imagine what a field of them would look like?

Big Wow

December 18, 2009


   Ok kids, if you’ve been paying attention, you realize that I (and others) think that there’s more going on in one’s mind than can be described by any process identified thus far.  That I (and others) disagree with many scientists and probably most neurobiologists who believe that consciousness will one day be understood as a biological process albeit one quite complex.

  I once read a complicated book, The Emperor’s New Mind by British polymath Roger Penrose.  He’s a respected scientist who thinks like I do.  I guess I should say thinks like I would if I had an IQ of 220 or so and didn’t have to use a calculator to do simple math.  Simply put, he believes that consciousness is the result of quantum processes that occur in structures far smaller than atoms (Planck scale) called microtubules in the brain.

  Furthermore he says, “It doesn’t even act according to conventional quantum mechanics.  It acts according to a theory we don’t yet have.”  He then goes on again to draw an analogy with the research of William Harvey who was the first (westerner anyway) to describe the circulation of blood in the body circa 1616.  Prior to this it was thought that darker blood originated in the liver and lighter in the heart; that the two types had different purposes; and were consumed throughout the body.     

  Harvey figured out that arteries carried blood away from the heart and veins back to it and was certain that the two types of vessels had to connect, but couldn’t prove it without a microscope powerful enough to see things the size of capillaries. 

  Penrose is a widely respected physicist and has won many awards and though some might disagree, most take him seriously.  He theorizes that at that very small scale there is an abstract realm of Platonic ideals/mathematical reality that influences the quantum processes and thus the biochemistry, and thus the drama of our lives. 

  A rich connection with this dimension allows gifted mathematicians, musicians, artists, etc to make discoveries.  Given the spectacular ability of mathematics to describe our universe, this sort of makes sense even if it is difficult to fathom – if you know what I mean. 

  Where did this all come from?  Penrose says that consciousness, all consciousness arose with the big bang.  An Italian astrophysicist calls it the “Big Wow”.  Where will this take us as understanding grows?  Hold on to your chairs, truth is always stranger than fiction.  Suffice it to say that, though they have evolved at different speeds, religion and science will converge.

  “Half the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religious traditions, for example, are facts.  And the other half contends that they are not fact at all.  As a result we have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies”.  Joseph Campbell.

  Nothing like a closed mind to screw stuff up.  Here is an exchange between two open ones:* Penrose’s partner in the development of their theory (Orch OR – Orchestrated Objective Reduction) Stuart Hameroff and Sam Hamil neurobiologist and author of The End of Faith;

Hamil: I do not rule out the possibility of our finding some sound, scientific reasons to believe in things that appear very spooky to most scientists at present – from telepathy to mathematical idealism.  And the fact that I do not rule such things out has made many atheists uncomfortable.  I do not foresee however, our finding good reasons to believe that the Bible was dictated by an omniscient being who disapproves of sodomy, but occasionally fancies human sacrifice.  These claims really do strike me as being “without intellectual merit.”

Hameroff: I agree with you.  My take is that there exists a fundamental Platonic wisdom embedded in the Planck scale (along with qualia, spin, charge, etc) which has inspired mankind to write the great books and act “in the name of God”… but man being man, many such efforts are misdirected, co-opted and perverted.


** Image at top is an oil painting by Urs Schmid of a Penrose tiling.  Look it up…

***Interesting to note that “anesthetic gases selectively erase consciousness soley through very weak quantum forces.”