Uh-oh…the universe is fuzzier than we thought….

I’ve been reading Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything (the illustrated version – though not exactly a comic book). It’s a fascinating tale of the history of science, well-written and interesting.

But this morning I found a disconcerting paragraph in Chapter 11, Muster Mark’s Quarks, a chapter in which we’re treated to the history of subatomic particles and the struggles physicists and cosmologists have suffered to understand the very tiny and the very large universes in which we dwell (and which apparently dwell in us). At the end of the chapter, Bryson writes:

The upshot of all this is that we live in a universe whose age we can’t quite compute, surrounded by stars whose distances from us and each other we don’t altogether know, filled with matter we can’t identify, operating in conformance with physical laws whose properties we don’t truly understand.

Uncertainty rules! Apparently what we have taken for fact out here in the normal world might be a little loosey-goosey. Bryson notes that when an astronomer says that galaxy M87 is sixty million light years from New York, he really means it’s between forty million and ninety million light years from Boston.

And on the subatomic level, there are so many particles and so many interactions and so many unknowns that uncertainty not only rules, it rocks. Take the Higgs Boson, for example. If you can find it. The scientists and engineers at the CERN Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland have got about ten billion dollars tied up in looking for the Higgs, which may or may not exist, depending on who you talk to. It’s supposed to be the particle that gives mass to other particles. Which leads to the mind-bending question of why a particle needs another particle to give it mass? At least that’s what bent my mind a bit this morning. A person more humorous than myself might ask if a person could go on a Higgs Boson cleansing diet to lose weight. But I am a little strange, so let that go by the boards.

On the positive side, it’s good to know that those guys know that they don’t know but they keep digging and peering and poking and prodding and theorizing. It’s a fun job and somebody has to do it. Hell, I’d be happy to sweep floors at CERN.


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Physics and the aging mind (and body)…

I’m plowing through the exercises at the end of Chapter 2 in Conceptual Physics, the chapter on Newton’s first law of motion, which defines inertia. There’s eighty one questions and problems, and a kind note from the author saying that he offers so many in order to give the instructor a ‘wide choice of assignments’.

Me being my instructor, as it were, I’ve assigned myself all of them, though without a deadline. Hewitt notes that the Exercises portion, comprising forty-eight problems, is designed to stress thinking rather than recall. If that doesn’t get the information into my head, nothing will.

All in all I’m excited about this book. It brings the science of Physics within my grasp, doesn’t torture me with math (though it may stimulate an interest in math), and offers a way to keep my aging brain active in a way different from my forays into Philosophy (which once upon a time was Physics).

The other night, as I was doing nothing in particular again, a thought rumbled through my head out of nowhere. "Oh my god I’m sixty-six years old. What the fuck am I doing? What in hell am I doing?" I’ve let that rattle around for a couple of days and still have not got a useful answer. I can, however, answer in part that I’m sometimes doing Physics, or learning it anyway. Which is something.

Part of the charm of Physics, so far, is that understanding Physics puts me in touch with reality. Not the dicey reality of the psychologists and the spiritualists and the ideologues, but the reality of a world that has weight and mass and dimension, a world that is discoverable and predictable and yet still full of mystery, a world that holds no evil, no good, no ego, a world that simply, without apology, without boast, is and which simply does not care.

That’s a good thing for an old mind to know.

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The inertia of inertia: bowling in space

My friend Shorty, from down South, bought me this marvelous textbook on physics for my birthday. It’s titled Conceptual Physics, by Paul Hewitt. It’s a marvelous big ol’ textbook that takes a learner from the very basics all the way into relativity, does it with minimal equations, a nice human touch, some cartoon work by the author, and lots of questions and exercises.

Which brings me to inertia, which I started reading about today, or more specifically, Newton’s First Law of Motion. (Newton’s stuff gets capitalized a lot.) Anyway, NFLOM says, "Every object continues in a state of rest or of uniform speed in a straight line unless acted on by a nonzero net force."

Hewitt notes, in a sidebar, "Inertia isn’t a kind of force; it’s a property of all matter to resist changes in motion."

He also notes, "We don’t know the reason for objects persisting in their motion when no forces act upon them."

Now here’s the thing. If you roll a bowling ball across a rug it will soon stop due to friction with the rug. If you roll it down a shiny bowling alley it will go a lot farther and if you’re lucky do some damage to a structure of tenpins before it stops. But if you were to take that ball out into space, beyond the gravitational influences of, say, a solar system, two things can happen.

If you just let go, applying no force, the ball, perhaps a bright red one, will sit there forever until something, some force or other, does something to it. Or, if you give it a push it will move at the same speed in a straight line, barring outside force, until the end of time.

As a practical matter, things will happen to disturb the ball’s inertia. It might run into a star, or pass by a planet, or get hit by a comet or asteroid. It might travel undisturbed for a trillion years except for hitting an atom head on once a year and thus be brought to a stop eventually.

But here’s the thing. Think about that ball’s motion. Out there in deep space all you did was give it a little push, using your arm muscles. That’s the only force applied to it. If nothing gets in its way, if no other force ever acts on it, the ball will just keep moving at the same speed in the same direction forever. If you gave it a five mile per hour push, it will cross the universe at five miles an hour.

How can that be?

The physicists say, "We don’t know."

How can that be? How can they not know? But I’ll take their word for it.

But I still feel mindboggled. My brain keeps asking the question, "What keeps it going?"

And comes up with strange answers, or questions. For example, did the initial push impart sub-atomic particles that carry force and that then react with the quantum fabric of space-time as constantly recycling drivers? Particles carry other kinds of forces, why not inertial motion?

See what I mean?

Part of the problem is that our frame of reference is so earthbound. Here, friction rules. Bowling balls slow down and stop because they constantly fight opposing forces like friction (and tenpins). Friction is in the blood of our brain’s synapses. It is a Law of Nature: bowling balls slow down and stop.

We don’t live in deep space. Stuff acts differently out there. Inertial motion is just too alien. Too out there. Too cosmic, if you will. The human brain will accept the theory, but the fact of an infinitely traveling bowling ball, no, neurons will not wrap themselves around that in a cocooning embrace. They will fight it, synapse by synapse, until the last synaptic soldier lies dead on the beaches of time.

Newton could really tick off an average brain. I can hardly wait to see what else this book is going to do to get my synapses in a twist.


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How to be a philosopher…

An intriguing title, no? If only there were simple lessons in the matter, lessons that would turn one into a philosopher with certificates and everything.

Perhaps the full title might be a little more intriguing: How to be a Philosopher: or How to Be Almost Certain that Almost Nothing is Certain.


That’s the full title of a new book by philosopher Gary Cox, who has done the hard work to gain a prestigious piece of paper identifying him as the holder of a Ph.D in Philosophy from the University of Birmingham in Britain. He’s written a few books, including How to Be an Existentialist: or How to Get Real, Get a Grip and Stop Making Excuses. I sense a theme developing…

Anyway, if you have pretensions to Philosophy, as opposed to philosophy, you could do worse than read Cox’s stuff. It’s clear, snarky, and introductory, and encouraging. And if you’re something of a used up rag of an old man like I am, his stuff will be helpful. Who knows? I might even go back to college someday and hunt down a degree or two in Philosophy for myself. After all, it’s not like I’m partying all the time or chasing wimmens or getting big offers from Goldman Sachs (though I bet they have a few people trained in philosophical methods thinking things through for the big money boys…)

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I’m fascinated by those old Greeks, the real old Greeks, the Greeks from a few thousand years ago.

A little history: forty thousand years ago modernish humans were living around the Aegean and on the Greek peninsula. They weren’t intellectual giants and they didn’t write anything down. On the other hand they didn’t need shopping lists, just a spear or a club.

Around five thousand* years ago those people started messing with metal. It was new and shiny and ouched if you weren’t careful. A couple of hundred or so years later there was a ribbon cutting and the Bronze Age of the Aegean began, and soon thereafter the people evolved into dependency on metal, a dependency which continues to this day despite the inroads of plastic.

From roughly forty-five hundred years ago to thirty-five hundred years ago, a couple of Greekish civilizations developed. On the island of Crete, the Cretans, centered in the city of Knossos, took root and grew into something formidable and formidably cultural. And they had writing, two kinds, one of which still hasn’t been deciphered. On the mainland of what is now Greece another group, who spoke a passable, inchoate Greek rumbled in from the north and in time became the Mycenaeans, the same bunch that later sacked Troy at least once. About thirty-six hundred years ago they took over Knossos, and about the same time their culture underwent a sudden, unexplained improvement.

About two hundred years later Crete collapsed, possibly due to the violent explosion of the volcano at Thera, though that may have happened about the time the Mycenaeans took over Knossos. My sources are a bit confused so far on that. Nonetheless Crete collapsed and Mycenae was the big power left standing.

After the Trojan war, within a couple of hundred years of it, Mycenae collapsed and much of the population of Greece migrated to Asia Minor and the Ionian islands, while another wave of Greekish types made their way down into the peninsula, a people known as the Dorians, maybe, sort of.

From thirty-two hundred years ago to twenty-eight hundred years ago Greece, or Hellas, entered the Dark Age. Population was down, the people were poorer, and things artistic and technological fell from grace. During the same period the Ionians began doing the things that would ultimately lead a few hundred years later to the Classical Age of Greece, the Greece of Athens and Sparta, well, mostly Athens.

That’s all history book stuff.

But these are the people who started us on the road to where we are as a civilization today, and never mind those Neanderthals in the Tea Party. Here’s the thing: go for a walk. Pay attention to how your muscles move while you’re walking. Pay attention to how your eyes respond to light and movement. Pay attention to how your clothes feel on your body. Pay attention to the breeze blowing your hair. (Forget the damned cellphone for a minute, would you?!)

And now think about this: thousands of years ago those Greeks, those Hellenes, felt the same things. Their muscles moved the same way, their eyes reacted the same way, the wind did the same things to their hair. Okay, the clothes were different and they were smart enough to not have cellphones. But they were the same as us, and vice versa, if you will. They were people you could talk to about the Yankees or the Redskins. They went to work, they ate, they drank, they breathed, they did sexy stuff to each other’s bodies, they worked farms and metal shops and made cloth. Never mind the cultural differences. Never mind the language. Think Yankees. Think Red Sox. Think local politics. Think food shopping. Think gossip.

And think: them’s the guys that gave the Western world science and philosophy. They got it all wrong in the beginning, but so what. They asked questions. They thought about things. They tried to make sense of the world, and humanity, in rational, logical ways. We’re here because they thought about stuff. Those guys. Just like us.**

That just blows me away.


* I really hate the whole B.C. and B.C.E. stuff, but just to hint you in, five thousand years ago was about 3,000 BCE, or BC if you want to be a pain in the butt about it. You work out the rest.

**Except for the cellphone and television stuff and the plastics, the lack thereof undoubtedly giving them time to focus on thinking for more than  three minutes at a time.

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A note from the garret…

I’ve struggled of late (actually for several decades) to define my life to myself in order to focus my scattershot efforts at trying to do something useful and intelligent with my life. And I’m still not having a lot of success with that.

The closest I’ve come to some sort of definition, or defining quality, is that I like to learn stuff. All kinds of stuff. Not to become an expert in anything, nor to win a job or a grade or a girl, but just… because.

Unfortunately one of the obstacles I’ve allowed to get in the way is an insidious drug, an intensely addictive, if ethereal, substance. It is highly addictive, as any number of social and neuroscientific studies have shown. It is corrosive, eating away at the brain, which it simultaneously deadens, much as certain insects anesthetize their prey while their venom eats away at very substance of the victim.

Unlike insect poisonings, however, this thing also insults the intellect by hurling at the still living brain a continuous slew of commercials.

Yeah, yeah, I’m talking about television.

My brain is addicted. Neuroscientists have shown that feeding the visual centers of the brain an image that changes about every two seconds makes the brain happy, almost like those lab rats so addicted to cocaine that they will forgo food for another hit of the drug. The brain will hang there in the increasingly empty space of the skull and insist on more, more, more moving imagery. It can’t get enough. And of course the television people, the people who make the commercials and the programs, know the same bit of science, so they keep that image moving along, bang, bang, bang. That science may explain why an intelligent discussion on PBS can’t compete with… well, with anything else on television, except perhaps the old midnight test patterns.

As for me, I would rather watch a rerun of Bones or Criminal Minds for the third or fourth time than crack open a really interesting book like Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason or Morris Berman’s The Twilight of American Culture. A few months ago it was NCIS reruns, and before that Angel, and Buffy. Lately I’ve exhausted the Bones reruns and the Criminal Minds reruns. Not even watching CM’s Lola Glaudini gun down a serial rapist in cold blood and get away with it holds any charms for me now.

Of late I have found myself sitting in the recliner realizing I was bored out of my skull, feeling insulted by every idiot commercial (there are no other kinds) seeking to suck money from my pocket and intelligence from my mind, and angry that I was still sitting there.

Even the shows I like a lot and that I think have some merit, shows like Stargate Universe and Caprica, barely do it for me anymore, even on tape that lets me speed through the commercials (no machine can go fast enough). The other day, twenty minutes into a brand new, and interesting, episode of Bones, I quit the show during a spate of commercials that had no end in sight, and that seemed to possess no end of stupidity and insult. I didn’t just change the channel. I turned the damned thing off. Click. Gone.

And I think I actually felt my brain breathe a sigh of relief. Or at least relax, as if it had been spasming and suddenly stopped and calmed. The relief was physical, palpable, and utterly enjoyable.

After a few moments basking in the silence of the room and of my mind, I decided it was time to kill the beast, or if not kill it entirely, at least make it miserable. For starters I took a demonic-looking, sort-of-maybe-Mayan cloth and draped it over the television screen, thusly:

2010-10-17 15-27-11.795Perhaps I should have turned it so that the face faced the screen, but that would require me to acquiesce in my brain’s belief that little people live in the box, and I’m just not that far gone.

So far, so good. I have watched some, but not much. I can barely stand to watch anything. Today I tried to watch the Patriots game and once more realized that NFL football is nothing more than a long string of commercials occasionally interrupted by men doing something with a pointy ball. The SyFy (dumbass name) channel held no no more charms for me either, and within a few minutes the set was off and the demon back in place.

There are those, and they shall be nameless, who would say that television does have some good things going for the viewer. They would be wrong, aside from some intelligent work on the Rachel Maddow show, and some things now and again on PBS, but the good stuff is so slight that it hardly qualifies as ‘good things’.

Well, perhaps the news? No. The news shows today are dumbshows, but with noise and words. The producers of television news have subordinated genuine, informative news to personality and to trivia and to trivial personalities. To these people in-depth coverage equates to dipping one’s little toe in the deep end of the pool for a few seconds and then withdrawing it because someone might get offended and not buy the sponsor’s product. ‘The news’ dragged the United States into two useless wars in the last decade, and has dragged itself downwards into its own muck in the process. With the possible exception of the Jon Stewart faux news show, which does a much better job of presenting the news than pretty much any other show.

Dramatic shows? I doubt there are any that can survive the onslaught of commercial nonsense that pays the actors’ salaries. An aware, intelligent mind can’t put up with the commercial stupidity and the general insipid repetitiveness of the so-called dramas unless it has allowed itself to be deadened by too much exposure to television, as I have been.

American sports? See my comment above about the NFL.

Science and learning shows? Sure, that’s an improvement, but those shows are pretty much dumbed down for an increasingly poorly educated American public, and most would rather present a dramatic image or graphic than try to explain a moderately difficult concept like the meaning of the word ‘theory’ in science.

And so on. Newton Minow had it right when he called television a ‘vast wasteland’ in 1961.

"When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better.
But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.
You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you’ll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it."

Nothing has changed in almost fifty years, though I do think he was wrong in the first sentence. Television has become more sophisticated in many ways, but at heart it is still the same old crap that so disturbed Minow. The little bit of good that might sneak by the purveyors of telecrap doesn’t make the entire enterprise worth watching. If you dress the village idiot in a thousand dollar suit and make him a CEO, he’ll still be the village idiot.

But in the end the struggle is, as all struggles are, personal. To watch or not to watch. To watch one’s mind decay or to click the ‘Off’ button and cover the set with a demon-infested piece of cloth. I still feel the pull of the addiction, but now I try to take a different path. I’ll turn on the radio and listen to NPR or some music. I’ll pull out a book I’ve read part of and neglected, set a timer, and read. I’ll go for a walk or do some exercise while listening to a CD of Buddhist chants (very heady stuff). But sometimes I’ll push the demon cloth aside and stare at something moving around on the screen for a while until I realize how screamingly bored and utterly disgusted I feel. Then, ‘click’. I’d rather sleep. There’s more to be learned in struggling to sleep, more to be learned in sleep, than anything that piece of electronics can provide to my mind.

Sorry, Rachel. Sorry, Lola. Sorry, Zoe. You can’t be my friends anymore.



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The Water of Thales gets the Ax

The first thing that simply must be cleared up is that the character of Anikin Skywalker, known as Ani, was not based on Anaximander of Miletus, who raised questions about Thales’ theory of everything and proposed one of his own theories of everything. No, the worst that could be said of Anaximander’s nicknames is that someone called him Salamander once. The outcome of that incident is not known to history. But nobody called him Ana. Hence the lack of confusion.

In any event, Anaximander, who was a native Milesian, born in 612 B.C.,  was a youngish contemporary of Thales, and as the youngish are wont to do, he considered some questions making the rounds about Thales’ theory of water.

To wit, if water comprises everything, why is there so much stuff that isn’t water? Why is it that water seems to be just stuff like the rest of the stuff?

And, water isn’t unusual, despite its unusual tripartite form, so why should it be considered so special? If we demand an accounting of rock and tree and the wife’s roast beast, why not of water?

And then there is the problem of wet. To parody a Roman, all Greece is divided into two parts. Greeks were big on opposites, on contraries. Wet, dry. Hot, cold. Things that cancel each other out. So if everything is made of water, and water is the origin of all things, when did poor old dry ever get a chance to come into existence?

Smackdown questions, hey?

Ax couldn’t accept the Thalian universe, so he began work on his own universe. True to Thales, he wanted to leave the gods out of it and reason to the truth of the world by looking at the world.

He reasoned to the Originating Stuff by applying the idea of the infinite regress. Everything has a beginning, the thinking goes. A causes B, B causes C, C causes D, and so on. Everything has a prior state. Forever, right? Well, no. First off, we run out of letters of the alphabet. So Ax said there has to be something that never began, that had no beginning. He called it the Infinite, or the Boundless. No beginning, no end, no inbetween.

Aristotle, a while later, noted that the Boundless is a beginning, but does not have a beginning. It begins all other things. (One might wonder if it begins LSD because one might wonder if one needs LSD to understand that twisty, swirly beginning stuff. But one won’t wonder that here.)

This Infinite was called ‘divine’ but not because it was goddish. It was just that the gods were immortal, deathless, infinite, as it were, and that was the same quality, immortality, possessed by the Infinite.

So the Boundless, or the Infinite, replaced the water of Thales as the source and cause of all things. Of course, there’s a problem. How does all this formless Infinite make all the different stuff that’s lying around the universe and around Greece? After all, if it were clearly Something, then it couldn’t be something else, because if it were clearly Something it wouldn’t be Infinite. If it were air, it couldn’t be earth. It’s the old problem of the one and the many.

Ax solved the problem by deciding that the Infinite was chaotic. Everything was mixed in – hot, cold, wet, dry. Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble. Shades of Macbeth’s witches and Harry Potter’s cauldron.

The next problem Ax had to deal with was to determine how the chaotic Infinite sorted out into all the different stuff in the universe.

No problemo.

Remember the ball-shaped time vortex that the Schwarzenegger used to travel through time as the Terminator? Right. Vortex. Key word. If you put stuff into a pan of water and swirl it around for a while, the heavy stuff will go to the center, and the lighter stuff will distribute outwards, thus sorting itself. So there was the Infinite, the Boundless, swirling and swirling, just like the stars overhead, and thus differentiating its stuff into all other stuff.

And that fit with the vision of the world commonly held. The heavy earth lay at the center of water surrounding it and beyond that was the air and beyond the air was the lighter, fiery stuff, fire, if you will, all going round and round and thus sustaining itself.

Voila, the world and all its parts made sensible. Thales questioned, water put in its place, and another step on man’s journey to the Moon and Mars and all those other fiery things on the outer rim of Earthan reality.

Two more interesting tidbits.

Ax supposed that there was balance in nature. If winter was very cold, the following summer must be very hot. If summer were dry, fall must be wet. It’s a Homeric thing, the thing about moderation and balance and harmony. If you go this way, then you gotta go that way. It could be said that Ax was keeping hold of at least that part of the old traditions, but applying it to the entire universe, not just to the Greek world.

But, the second tidbit holds with the modern thought of Thales, that balance and moderation was not something imposed by the gods, did not come from without, but was part of the essential nature of the stuff of the universe. Zeus can no longer step in and interfere in the things of the Anaximandrian universe: he can only sit on Olympus and sulk as the world neglects him. Zeus is out of a job.

Thus was set the battlefield for history from the time of Thales right up to today. Zeus pitching thunderbolts and men forming the shield of reason against Zeus.

Yeah, after Anaximander life started to get complicated.


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