Friday, March 13, 2009

Wasting away in Margaritaville (a little thing we call life)

The funny thing about life, all life really but let's take human life for example, is that if you pick it apart, limb by limb, cell by cell, molecule by molecule, what you end up with is a big pile of protons and electrons. In the words of Gertrude Stein, "There's no there there." I mean where's the life in that, right? Try asking a pile of protons to pick up the dry cleaning or drop the kids off at soccer practice.

It makes you wonder if most of what we consider to be life is nothing more than an emergent phenomenon--a simple byproduct of complexity. It's a numbers game. One guy with a beer and facepaint is a nuisance, 30,000 of them and you've got a stampede at the Giants Game or the Colliseum. All of the things we cherish about life then, friendship, family, joy, a good cappuccino at the mall, all of this would be sort of an afterthought, a nonessential detail to the fundamental truth of angle, vector, force. This type of deconstruction of life may be elemental but it lacks a certain elegance. It's just not the kind of thing you want to snuggle up next to at night or pen a love poem to!

Looking at life in this way can certainly double-down your faith in something greater, something spiritual, that something that is more than the sum of its parts. Or it can just make you say what the hey, charge me another round of margaritas on my mastercard buddy, because I'm going out of this senseless soup in style.

Soup, actually, is not a bad way of looking at it, because if you delve down a little deeper and start spelunking at the quantum scale, the protons and electrons become quarks differentiated only by their color, spin and flavor (and, yes, that is technical talk). A couple of scoops of quarks then resembles less a pile of discrete particles and more like a cloud of mathematical probabilities, particle~waves of energy twinkling in and out of existence, periodically dancing around each other to create the illusion of matter. Mrs. Gump says that life is like a box of chocolates, but that's at the emergent level, it's really, fundamentally speaking, more like a Baskin Robbins store in a blender... on acid!

Back to some Everyday Immortality though. Deepak writes, "When I decide to observe the quantum soup of the Universe, made up of non-stuff, it manifests in my awareness as a physical body that I experience as mine, and other bodies that I experience as the Universe." Matter, he goes on, is the birth of particles from waves, it's momentarily frozen waves of energy. And we're back to the margarita description of life! What separates us the tequila then from them the lime and it the ice is a quick spin in a blender and a dash of salt.

"Personality is time bound," you see, "It comes about when the present is identified with the past and projected into the future." The sense of continuity, that things are happening, that causes lead to effects, that we're making headway on that pile of laundry in the corner, is a mere linguistic trick, a tromp-l'oeil changing of tenses. In short, time is also an emergent phenomenon; it's a secondary effect of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, or entropy. Because protons can attract and repel, go forwards and backwards through all their interactions with no problem.

Time is perhaps an illusion of memory, a game that grey matter likes to play when it's not helping us dodge cars on the BQE and crumbling equity markets, but wait and see if the headphones to your ipod ever spontaneously untangle and you will begin to believe in the power of these little emergent phenomena we call time and life.

So what are these quarks? Heisenberg will tell you that it's not too certain. The better you know where they are, the less you know where they are going (momentum). The better you know where they are going, the less you know where they are. The more precisely you try and weigh them, the more their mass varies. They are particles and they are waves. They are energy and they are matter (which Einstein has already gotten us confused with). They are fields and forces. They follow one path or both paths through a slit in the wall depending on which way you are looking. Talk about quantum decoherence! You say wave, I say particle, oh let's call the whole thing off...

It's at this point when you go back to reading the sports page, or take a vow of silence. I guess Joni Mitchell had it right:

I've looked at clouds from both sides now,
From up and down, and still somehow,
It's cloud illusions I recall,
I really don't know clouds, at all.


Friday, March 6, 2009

Poet predicts end of science - Universe answers

In 1915, Einstein publishes his general theory of relativity. It's a simple idea that creates a big bang in the world of physics. When, or perhaps more appropriately if, fully understood, the theory describes a world where space and time evolve dynamically: no longer absolute and eternal, but relative, no longer a fixed stage on which the great dramas of life play out, but non-Euclidean and non-Newtonian sets constantly changing and being changed by the actors and their actions inside them. Man, no longer a play thing to immutable and inscrutable fate, has cut the strings and is executing a mathematical and cosmic dance with the gods. Le point fixe qui bouge, in Lecoq terms.

Perhaps you are thinking that this is a bit dramatic or poetic for a description of modern physics, but then you would be forgetting that Einstein himself was a dreamer. In fact, he describes a vivid dream involving cows, a farmer and an electric fence as the inspiration for his special theory of relativity. "Science does not know its debt to imagination," writes Emmerson, and so it is that we owe a debt to the artists, to the writers and dreamers who travel and trade in the land of imagination, for nothing can be theorized or studied that hasn't first been imagined.

Beyond the big bang (tautology? is there anything before the big bang?), Einstein's theory creates the theoretical and mathematical framework which predicts and describes black holes, gravitational lensing and much more. In terms of gravity as geometry, people offer the image of a rubber sheet stretched out with bowling balls and other balls rolling around on it. If you visualize how each ball would create it's own dip and pull in the rubber sheet around it and what effect that might have on a nearby object, then all you have to do is add two more dimensions (one in space and one in time) to understand general relativity's description of the world.

Though it may be hard to understand now, one of the most revolutionary ideas inherent in general relativity was that the universe (space and time) might not be fixed and eternal. When you start plugging in the numbers out pops a picture of the universe which includes a big bang, i.e. a beginning, as well as expansion. And this beginning and expansion leads to an obvious question. If the universe starts at the big bang, 'how does it end?'

Remember that people have been burned at the stake, or worse, for asking similar questions, or worse, proposing answers to them. Take Giordano Bruno for example. He was burned just for suggesting that the earth rotated around the sun and not the other way around (thus displacing man from the center of the universe). Even at the late date of 1915, and to a man of logic and reason like Einstein, the idea that the universe could have a beginning and an end is quite inelegant, frightening even. You have to be a real sensitive type or extremely paranoid to worry about a problem that is, by all reasonable calculations, billions of years in the future!

But worry he does, until finally he is led to commit what he considered the biggest blunder of his career. In order make the equations of general relativity describe a static world where the universe isn't expanding or contracting at the drop of a photon, Einstein inserts into them what he calls the Cosmological Constant. As it turns out, the universe is expanding and this has repeatedly been confirmed by observation. Moreover, the Cosmological Constant is not even mathematically very, well, constant, as it still tends to result in descriptions of an expanding or contracting universe when you start adding it all up.

In a further twist, it turns out that an accurate mathematical model of the universe, i.e. general relativity, may need a cosmological constant, not for aesthetic reasons about whether we think it makes sense for the universe to be able to expand or not, but in order to take into account the effects of the vacuum, or ground-state energy, which act to push against the pull of all the matter. Although this isn't what Einstein had in mind, it does sort of mitigate the blunder. In fact, it might make it one of the more inspired, and dare we say, creative acts of theoretical legerdemain in the history of physics. It was certainly a leap of faith. But, wait, we're talking about science! Next thing you know you are going to be telling me that Darwin was an intelligent designer...

So, did general relativity change the world? One might say that it didn't change it at all, just our fundamental understanding of everything in it and how it all works. And that, as the poem goes, has made all the difference. To continue the Frosty metaphor, it's two roads diverging not just in a wood but because of the wood and by your traveling there (and let's not forget the effect that roads and the wood have on you either).

But the whole sha-big-bang does leave one wondering, how is it all going to end? Well theoretically speaking there are basically two possibilities: continuing expansion or contraction. Either there is not enough matter and energy, and therefore gravitational pull, to stop the expansion of the universe and it keeps on going until there are nothing but vast distances between every soon to be cold and extinct particle, or there is enough and the universe's expansion is eventually slowed down and stopped, at which point it begins to contract back in on itself into a final fiery and dense singularity (aka big bang bis or part deux).

Interestingly, a year after Einstein publishes his theory, our friend Robert Frost publishes the following poem:

Fire and Ice

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Did Frost subscribe to scientific journals? Did he somehow understand Einstein's general relativity (before anyone else) and what it implied about the beginning and end of the universe? Probably not, but actually that is what makes this poem even more prescient (as in preceding science as imagination always must), Frost has correctly described the two possible ends of the universe, fire and ice, and their anthropomorphic equivalents, desire and hate. So which is it?

Well in 1998, observations of supernovas have shown us that the universe is not just expanding, it's accelerating! More precisely the rate of its expansion is accelerating. While there is still room for new discoveries or understandings, like the effect of quantum gravity on these calculations or the whole dark matter thing, this acceleration pretty much tells us how it's all going to end, I'm talking about life, the universe and everything. In the words of that immortal poet Robert Van Winkle, it's going to be "ice, ice, baby."


Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The light in me honors the light in you

Who are you? What is your essential and infinite divineness? Are you nothing more than a body and stream of conscious thoughts? Is the person thinking the thoughts, giving the orders, the same one who feels lonely? Hungry? Or is there a deeper you? If you are the person thinking your thoughts, then who are you when you are not thinking? When you are sleeping? Unconscious?

Who is the person thinking your thoughts? Who is the person in between the thoughts, the silent self, the watcher? The experiencer? “You cannot experience the experiencer by thinking thoughts because when you are thinking thoughts you can no longer be with yourself, the thinker.”

This is Deepak Chopra’s Everyday Immortality which offers no less than a path to immortality in everyday, to become de-i-vine, the deification of self and the devine which means guess in French and your guess is as good as mine as to how to get there. But if you ain't looking, who is?

In a quantum leap of truth he reminds us that, “The essential nature of material body and that of the solid-appearing universe is that they are both nonmaterial. They are made up of non-stuff.”

“When I make the choice to observe the subatomic world of mathematical ghosts, the ghosts freeze into space-time events or particles that ultimately manifest as matter.” This guy knows his stuff. He is talking in the interstices, the borderlessland where physics become meta-physics.

But what are we, what is matter, you ask? “My physical body and the body of the physical universe are both proportionately as void as intergalactic space,” comes the answer. So the Buddhists are correct in seeking the deeper self, the truth that pierces the illusion of duality and material existence in the silences of meditation, in the spaces between thoughts. This is the place where knowing happens. The knower resides in the timeless void between the thinker’s thoughts.

Physics tells us that this is not a dead or empty space. The void is filled with energy, and this vacuum energy, similar to the person you are or find when you are not thinking or doing is the deeper all-encompassing you, the cosmological constant. What some people might call the higher self or the eternal soul.

“The experiencer changes, but the experiencer remains the same. The thought comes and goes, the thinker is always there; the scenery transforms, but the seer remains the unchanged, eternal.”

Yes, and...

“Only through silence, only by Being can I know myself.”


One more thing, "Coffee is for closers".