Archive for the ‘Cosmology’ Category

Non-Ergodic

May 1, 2009

mandelbrot

Read that word in an absolutely fascinating excerpt from the new book Reinventing the Sacred by Stuart Kauffman.  Didn’t know what it meant either and it wasn’t in my dictionary.  Tried to look it up in my digital OED but it locked up.

Courtesy of Google found that non-ergodic refers to a set or group or system, the universe say, that is incomprehensible by study of a single aspect or earlier state.  Ever since the Big Bang, the universe has been expanding and evolving.  One could not extrapolate its current state based upon its early arrangement any more than examination of a slice now would tell us much about the whole a billion years hence.

Kauffman is an atheist who wants to understand the nature of the universe.  At its earliest why did the atoms combine as they did?  Darwin’s theory of evolution tells us a lot about our biosphere, but what about before there was anything to evolve? How did the first reproducing cell form?

Framing the question with an example, he tells us that there are twenty different amino acids and 20 to the power of 200 possible combinations thereof to make a length 200 protein.  It would have taken ten to the power of thirty-nine times the age of our universe to make each of them once. Why did the ones that formed come into being and not any of the other possible combinations?

Kauffman began his quest with genes.  He earned his MD at UCSF and undertook research into genetic expression.  He found that they exist “on the edge of chaos” and that “the proper functioning of an organism depends upon its self organization and regulation”.  A trait does not come fully formed from a single gene, but from their interaction.  “Health is just a moment of stability in a very uncertain cellular world.”

The principles of self-organization found in complexity theory play an important creative role in the evolution of the universe, our biosphere, our genome, and our existence. It describes the behavior of systems that are sensitive to initial conditions, but evolve unpredictably over time.

The above Mandlebrot fractal is an example of a complicated structure arising from a simple set of points, a formula, and repeated iterations.  A slight difference in the points and formula would have led to significantly different evolution.  (cf the butterfly effect)

“Thus a radical and I will say, partially lawless creativity enters the universe.  The radical implication is that we live in an emergent universe in which ceaseless unforeseeable creativity arises and surrounds us.  And since we can neither prestate, let alone predict all that will happen, reason alone is an insufficient guide to living our lives forward.  This emergent universe, the ceaseless creativity in this universe, is the bedrock of the sacred that I believe we must reinvent.”

“What about all the aspects of the universe we hold sacred – agency, meaning, values, purpose, all life and the planet?…One response is that if the natural world has no room for these things, and yet we are unshakably convinced of their reality, then they must be outside of nature – supernatural…”

“The ground of our existence, then is not to be found in physics alone, but also in the partially lawless becoming of the biosphere, econosphere, culture that we self-consistenly co-construct.”

A universe not understandable by reductionism? Nor by a grand patron in robe and slippers?  Kauffman gives us a radical appreciation of an unpredictable creativity that underpins and leavens our cosmos.

*Interesting (to me anyway) Kauffman was president (in 1961) of the same mountaineering club as was I (1974).  Makes me wonder anew about the field of embodied cognition to which I referred  in “Let’s Dance” 1/24/08 below.  Kinesthetics, adventure, and cerebration  can combine to powerful effect.

**Dang if he didn’t figure out how to get paid to sit around staring off into space while I still need my day job.   Teaching at Harvard this spring,  he heads the Institute for Biocomplexity and Informatics at the University of Calgary.

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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.

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.

Raise Your Hand If You Like To be Told That You’re Stupid

March 21, 2008

   A study published in 1993 questioned why some gifted children nurture their talent all through their teenage years while many let it whither.  The insights hold meaning for all.   Researchers had teachers in a highly regarded suburban high school identify freshman students with high degrees of natural talent in one or more of the following areas: math, science, music, athletics, and art. 

   Those selected who then agreed to participate were followed throughout their high school career by means of the “beeper method”.  They’d carry a beeper and whenever it was activated by a researcher would complete a questionnaire asking about time, place, activity, mood, feelings, environment, level of satisfaction, etc.  After graduation, their records of achievement were evaluated and conclusions drawn.

   Several factors were found to be associated with the successful development of talent. First, children must simply be recognized as talented.  Talented kids can concentrate, but also are open to new experiences.  They are less inclined to just socialize than pursue some sort of meaningful activity; they spent more time alone.  They are sexually conservative. 

  Their families provide both support and challenge.  They like best teachers who were “supportive and modeled enjoyment”.  They found both expressive and instrumental rewards in their activities; that is they enjoyed creative opportunities while tracking future goals.  Talent will be developed if it provides “optimal experiences – flow” ie if it occasions the sorts of experiences in which one loses track of time.

  Finally, the researchers emphasized their observation that “psychological complexity (is) the organizing principle”.  The opposing forces at work within and among the factors listed above create the cohering whole.

  Read the book. Even though written fifteen years ago, it’s still enlightening.  Brains haven’t changed.  Talented Teenagers, Csikszentmihalyi, Rathunde, Whalen, Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Postscript: To the surprise of the researchers, the “Talented Teens” did spend a modest amount of time in front of the tube.  Decompression, relaxation perhaps.  Clearly, they  used it instead of it using them – a practice which alone would yield quite a bit more than a head start.

PPS.  Read other books by Mr. Csikszentmihalyi.  His studies of optimal experiences are absolutely fascinating.