The Important Thing

 Leonard Mlodinow, from "Randomness and Choice," OnBeing with Krista Tippett, April 30, 2014:

When you look at your life, if you had to sit down and think about, and I'm talking about in detail, not just the headlines, if you think about all the details of what happened to you, you will find that there was a time where you had the extra cup of coffee, where if you hadn't, you wouldn't have met Person A.

When I look back in my life, I could find so many instances like that. And I had fun tracing some of them. And the course of your life depends on how you react to those opportunities and challenges that the randomness presents to you.

If you're awake and paying attention, you will find that things happen. They might seem good, they might seem bad but the important thing is how you reacted to it.

Dandelion seeds are dispersed by the wind.

See also: "Stochasticity," Radiolab

The Universe is in Us

Astrophysicist Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson was asked in an interview with TIME magazine, "What is the most astounding fact you can share with us about the Universe?" This is his answer.

Behaving as Both a Wave and a Particle

"One of the most mysterious things about light, is that when you really get down to it -- and this is not just true of light, this is actually true of almost anything once you get on to a small enough, quantum mechanical level -- that light behaves as both a wave and a particle."

~ Sal Khan, from the Khan Academy tutorial "An Introduction to Light"

The Range of Human Imagination

Analogies prove nothing, but they can make one feel more at home.

~ Sigmund Freud, from Introduction to Psychoanalysis

Excerpt from Once Before Time: A Whole Story of the Universe by Martin Bojowold:

Once theory pushes forward to a possible understanding of the big bang and the remaining universe, the temptation to explain the emergence of the universe itself becomes overwhelming. Interpretations of theories and their mathematical solutions concerning entire worldviews indeed offer a high degree of fascination. But in too direct and supposedly generally valid an interpretation there lies, especially in this case, a great danger—not least because theories relevant for such questions will for all foreseeable time remain in their infancy. Physics is, after all, even if we disregard its big sister philosophy, not alone in this business. And yet a comparison of different worldviews offers a certain charm, and certainly some knowledge, too.

One should not underestimate myths and what they can teach us about ourselves and the progress we have made. Take the Summer Palace in modern Beijing, a beautiful sprawling park built as the summer retreat of Empress Dowager Cixi. On a small island in a man-made lake, facing the Tower of Buddhist Incense and the Sea of Wisdom Temple on the slope of Longevity Hill which rises from the shore, stand the Hall of Embracing the Universe. It is a small, humble building in the style of its time, the fringes of its roof rising optimistically upward to aim at the sky. The Hall of Embracing the Universe tells us everything there is to know about humanity and the world: It was initially called the Hall of Watching the Moon Toad to honor its role in observing the moonrise; nowadays, the Hall of Embracing the Universe is a souvenir shop.

Hall of Embracing the Universe, completed in Emperor Qianlong's reign (1736-1795)

Surprisingly often, one can find parallels between ideas stemming from the most diverse traditions, an observation probably not hinting at an ember of truth but rather traceable back to the fact that the range of human imagination is despite its excesses, actually quite small.

The Best Our Species Can Do


by Georges Whitesides, from No Small Matter: Science on the Nanoscale

We’re burdened by a curious conditioning that blinds us to one of the greatest — perhaps the greatest — of  art forms. We live for poetry; we live in terror of equations.

We see a poem, and we try it on for size: we read a line or two; we roll it around in our mind; we see how it fits and tastes and sounds. We may not like it, and let it drop, but we enjoy the encounter and look forward to the next. We see an equation, and it is as if we’d glimpsed a tarantula in the baby’s crib. We panic.

An equation can be a thing of such beauty and subtlety that only a poem can equal it. As an evocation of reality — as the shortest of descriptions, but describing worlds — it is hard to beat the most artful of poems and, equally, of equations. They are the best our species can do.

Equations are the poetry that we use to describe the behavior of electrons and atoms, just as we use poems to describe ourselves. Equations may be all we have: sometimes word fail, since words best describe what we have experienced, and behaviors at the smallest scale are forever beyond our direct experience.

Consider Margaret Atwood:

You fit into me
Like a hook in an eye

A fish hook
An open eye

Consider Louis de Broglie (a twentieth-century physicist, and an architect of quantum mechanics):

λ = h/mv

Read the equation as if it were poetry — a condensed description of a reality we can only see from the corner of our eye. The “equals” sign is the equivalent of “is,” and makes the equation a sentence: “A moving object is a wave.” Huh? What did you just say? How can that be?

It’s an idea worth trying on for size. Poetry describes humanity with a human voice; equations describe a reality beyond the reach of words. Playing a fugue, and tasting fresh summer tomatoes, and writing poetry, and falling in love all ultimately devolve into molecules and electrons, but we cannot yet (and perhaps, ever) trace that path from one end (from molecules) to other (us). Not with poetry, nor with equations. But each guides us part way.

Of course, not all equations are things of beauty: some are porcupines, some are plumber’s helpers, and some are tarantulas.

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I’m a chemist. My universe is nuclei and electrons, and the almost endless ways they can assemble. Atoms are just at the border between ordinary, macroscopic matter and matter dominated by the Alice-in-Wonderland rules of quantum mechanics. Electrons, in particular, have the unnerving property of having mass and charge but no extent — no size. There’s no tiny BB down in their core, as there is a nucleus sitting at the center of an atom. “Ah,” you say, “that’s strange. If there’s nothing there, what is it that has a mass? And what’s charged?” Good question…

…As a chemist, I’ve come to uneasy terms with the weirdness of electrons and photons, and with their ability to meld into the ordinariness of macroscopic things. But sometimes, lying awake in a strange hotel room at 4 a.m., considering what I might say that I really understand about anything, I fret that the answer is: almost nothing.

Open Up to What is Normally Invisible

Excerpt from “Holding Life Consciously,” a Speaking of Faith conversation with Arthur Zajonc, Director of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society and Professor of Physics, Amherst College (June 24, 2010):

So the contemplative becomes an avenue not only into a kind of interiority for ourselves, you know, our own moral and, say, lives of purpose and meaning and so forth that we may brood over, which is something different than meditating. But also there's an objective character to the contemplative inquiry, the kind that [Rudolph] Steiner is interested in where one is oriented towards the other, towards the world around us, towards nature.

And one comes to know the interior of the exterior. One comes to know the inside of every outside. It's not only human beings that have an interior or an inside, but Bell Sound Meditationthat the world around us as well can be known inwardly. Strike a bell and you can listen to the sound, but you can also move towards the qualities that are more aesthetic and even moral in nature that deal with the sounding bell or the particular color or that painting that's there or the music that you're hearing.

So life is dense with those levels of experience, but we need to calm ourselves, get clear, get quiet, direct attention, sustain the attention, open up to what is normally invisible, and certain things begin to show themselves. Maybe gently to begin with, but nonetheless it deepens and enriches our lives. If we are committed to knowledge, then we ought to be committed also to exploring the world with these lenses, with this method in mind and heart.

You know, otherwise we're kind of doing it halfway. And then when we go to solve the problems of our world, whether they're educational or environmental, we're bringing only half of our intelligence to bear; we've left the other half idle or relegated it to religious philosophers. But if we're going to be integral ourselves, you know, have a perspective which is whole, then we need to bring all of our capacities to the issues that we confront, spiritual capacities as well as more conventional sensory-based intellects and the like.


An Observable Trail

From “The Cloud Chamber,” by Zen Master Barry Magid:

cloud-chamber A cloud chamber is a device particle physicists use to study subatomic particles that cannot be observed directly. But as they pass through the chamber, the particles bump into the cloud droplets, leaving an observable trail.

The Zendo serves as our cloud chamber, and the trail we watch out for is a trail of anger, pain and disappointment. These traces let us know that an expectation — even an unconscious expectation about how we should be, be treated, be able to handle ourselves, etc. — has passed through. Because even if we can't initially put our finger on an exact way to put the expectation into words, we know when we're in pain or angry.

Zendo Gradually, the more we study the traces in the Zendo cloud chamber, the more we will be able to discern patterns of expectation, patterns we call our core beliefs.

And then, as we notice them more and more directly, we can notice and label them simply as arising and passing thoughts, thoughts that do not need to be changed or eliminated, but simply watched as part of our mental landscape.

And at last we are present in that landscape, not because we have designed or learned to control it, but because we ourselves are the landscape and are at home in ourselves.

[Thanks Jeanne!]

What We See

Excerpts of dialogue spoken by the Werner Heisenberg character in Michael Frayn’s Tony award winning play, Copenhagen:

How difficult it is to see even what’s in front of one’s eyes. All we possess is the present, and the present endlessly dissolves into the past…And yet how much more difficult still it is to catch the slightest glimpse of what’s behind one’s eyes.

*     *     *

Werner Heisenberg, 1965 BBC interview And that’s when I did uncertainty. Walking round Faelled Park on my own one horrible raw February night. It’s very late, and as soon as I’ve turned off into the park I’m completely alone in the darkness. I start to think about what you’d see, if you could train a telescope on me from the mountains of Norway.

You’d see me by the street lamps on the Blegdamsvej, then nothing as I vanished into the darkness, then another glimpse of me as I passed the lamp-post in front of the bandstand. And that’s what we see in the cloud chamber. Not a continuous track but a series of glimpses — a series of collisions between the passing electron and various molecules of water vapour…

Or think of you, on your great papal progress to Leiden in 1925. What did Margrethe see of that, at home here in Copenhagen? A picture postcard from Hamburg, perhaps. Then one from Leiden. One from Göttingen. One from Berlin. Because what we see in the cloud chamber are not even the collisions themselves, but the water-droplets that condense around them, as big as cities around a traveler — no, vastly bigger still, relatively — complete countries — Germany…Holland…Germany again. There is no track, there are no precise addresses; only a vague list of countries visited. I don’t know why we hadn’t thought of it before, except that we were too busy arguing to think at all.

To Experience the Delight and Awe that Scientists Feel

From PowellsBooks.Blog (July 20, 2009):

why-does-e Why Does E=mc2? is in some ways a simple book with a simple aim: we (Jeff Forshaw and Brian Cox) wanted to see whether we could actually derive E=mc2 in a way that any interested non-mathematical reader could understand. By derive, I mean follow a series of small steps that are well-motivated and hopefully obvious, or at least plausible, and arrive at the equation itself, assuming no prior knowledge and making the minimum possible number of assumptions. In other words, we behave exactly as we would in our professional life as research scientists, searching for equations that describe nature.

In doing this, we hope to do much more than simply present and describe the equation, however. If the reader follows the argument, we hope that he or she will experience the delight and awe that scientists feel when they explore nature and reveal its underlying simplicity and beauty. One often hears scientists describe equations as "beautiful," and we believe the best way to understand what this means is to actually see how the most iconic and simple equation of all came to be written down. We don't in fact follow Einstein's route to E=mc2, because we believe that 100 years of teaching and understanding has provided a more profound and transparent route to it — we aren't writing a history book.

There is an element of polemic in the book. We very firmly believe that science, which is synonymous with rational thought as far as we are concerned, is the route to a better future. Woolly thinking and superstition are rife, and we should strive to reduce their place in public discourse. By showing how something as useful and, as far as we can tell, correct, as E=mc2 emerges from simple thought processes that we believe are open to every interested reader, we hope to make our case for an increased respect for and use of the scientific method in everyday life.

collider We also describe what E, m, and c actually are. Why is the speed of light special? What is energy, and what is mass? The question of mass leads us to the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, where we both work. One of the key goals of this machine is to answer this question definitively for the first time. It is remarkable that Einstein could be led to the equation that describes how mass and energy can be interchanged freely, without actually knowing what mass is. Such is the wonder of physics!

Fundamental Reality

From “Buddhism and Quantum Physics,” by Christian Thomas  Kohl, The Buddhist Channel (July 22, 2009):

Drawing Hands, a 1948 lithograph by M. C. Escher

If you don’t believe in a creator, nor in the laws of nature, nor in a permanent object, nor in an absolute subject, nor in both, nor in any of it, in what do you believe then? What remains that you can consider a fundamental reality? The answer is simple; it is so simple that we barely consider it being a philosophical statement: things depend upon other things. For instance, a thing is dependent upon its cause. There is no effect without a cause and no cause without an effect. There is no fire without fuel, no action without an actor and vice versa. Things are dependent upon other things; they are not identical with each other, nor do they break up into objective and subjective parts.

This Buddhist concept of reality is often met with disapproval and considered incomprehensible. But there are modern modes of thought with points of contact. For instance, there is a discussion in quantum physics about fundamental reality. What is fundamental in quantum physics: particles, waves, field of force, law of nature, mindsets or information? Quantum physics came to a result that is expressed by the key words of complementarity, interaction and entanglement.

According to these concepts there are no independent quantum objects, just complementary ones; they are at the same time waves and particles. Quantum objects interact with others, and they are entangled even when they are separated at a far distance. Without being observed philosophically, quantum physics has created a physical concept of reality. According to that concept, the fundamental reality is an interaction of systems that interact with other systems and with their own components.

Gary Larson, March 23, 1984

"Ohhhhhhh...Look at that, Schuster...Dogs are so cute when they try to comprehend quantum mechanics."

Self-Ordering Systems

From Thinking in Pictures: and Other Reports from My Life With Autism by Temple Grandin:

Thinking in Pictures “In high school I came to the conclusion that God was an ordering force that was in everything after Mr. Carlock explained the second law of thermodynamics, the law of physics that states the universe will gradually lose order and have increasing entropy. Entropy is the increase of disorder in a closed thermodynamic system. I found the idea of the universe becoming more and more disordered profoundly disturbing. To visualize how the second law worked, I imagined a model universe consisting of two rooms. This represented a closed thermodynamic system. One room was warm and the other was cold. This represented the state of maximum order. If a small window were opened between the rooms, the air would gradually mix until both rooms were lukewarm. The model was now in a state of maximum disorder, or entropy. The scientist James Clerk Maxwell proposed that order could be restored if a little man at the window opened and closed it to allow warm atoms to go to the one side and cold atoms to go to the other side. The only problem is that an outside energy source is required to operate the window. When I was a college sophomore, I called this ordering force God.

…I hated the second law of thermodynamics because I believed that the universe should be orderly. Over the years I have collected many articles about spontaneous order and pattern formation in nature. Susumu Ohno, a geneticist, has found classical music in slime and mouse genes. He converted the genetic code of four nucleotide bases in our DNA is not random, and when the order is played, it sounds like something by Bach or a Chopin nocturne. Patterns in flowers and leaf growth in plants develop in mathematical sequence of the Fibonacci numbers and the golden mean of the Greeks.

Patterns spontaneously arise in many purely physical systems. Convection patterns in heated fluids sometimes resemble a pattern of cells. Scientists at the University of California have discovered that silver atoms deposited on a platinum surface spontaneously form ordered patterns. The temperature of the platinum determines the type of pattern, and order can be created from random motion. A small change in temperature totally changes the pattern. At one temperature triangles are formed, and at another temperature hexagons form, and further heating of the surface makes the silver atoms revert to triangles in a different orientation. Another interesting finding is that everything in the universe, ranging from amino acids and bacteria to plants and shells, has handedness. The universe is full of self-ordering systems.”

*     *     *     *     *

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Beauty and Truth in Physics

"Wielding laypeople's terms and a sense of humor, Nobel Prize winner Murray Gell-Mann drops some knowledge about particle physics, asking questions like, Are elegant equations more likely to be right than inelegant ones? Can the fundamental law, the so-called 'theory of everything' really explain everything? His answers will surprise you."

After speaking at TED2007 on elegance in physics, the amazing Murray Gell-Mann gives a quick overview of another passionate interest: finding the common ancestry of our modern languages.

Unified Theory

"If we find out that there is this kind of a janna_levin_2unification, what we're really saying is that everything in the universe is traceable to one physical phenomenon. All the particles in your body, all the particles in my body, all the particles on the other side of the galaxy, and all of their interactions are unified into one simple kind of mathematical structure."

~ Columbia University astrophysicist and novelist Janna Levin discussing the significance of the Large Hadron Collider with Kurt Anderson on Studio 360 (5.23.08).

The Universe on a String

Physicist Brian Greene explains superstring theory, the idea that minscule strands of energy vibrating in 11 dimensions create every particle and force in the universe.

"You see, our universe is kind of like a finely tuned machine. Scientists have found that there are about 20 numbers, 20 fundamental constants of nature that give the universe the characteristics we see today. These are numbers like how much an electron weighs, the strength of gravity, the electromagnetic force and the strong and weak forces. Now, as long as we set the dials on our universe machine to precisely the right values for each of these 20 numbers, the machine produces the universe we know and love.

But if we change the numbers by adjusting the settings on this machine even a little bit... the consequences are dramatic.

For example, if I increase the strength of the electromagnetic force, atoms repel one other more strongly, so the nuclear furnaces that make stars shine break down. The stars, including our sun, fizzle out, and the universe as we know it disappears.

So what exactly, in nature, sets the values of these 20 constants so precisely? Well the answer could be the extra dimensions in string theory. That is, the tiny, curled up, six-dimensional shapes predicted by the theory cause one string to vibrate in precisely the right way to produce what we see as a photon and another string to vibrate in a different way producing an electron. So according to string theory, these miniscule extra-dimensional shapes really may determine all the constants of nature, keeping the cosmic symphony of strings in tune."

~ Brian Greene, from The String's the Thing (Hour 2 of Nova's The Elegant Universe)