Archive for May, 2011


May 7, 2011

Writing about the universe filling its void with energy and my doing the same, am I indulging in a cute anthropomorphic attempt at poetry?  And does it matter to your life today, these philosophies of whether the universe has a soul.

Whether philosophy matters is a subject of talk shows.  Most of us fear our kids will become philo majors and end up using their ivy league diplomas to sell shoes and work in fast food.  Philosophers will tell you it was philosophy that first realized the existence of atoms – an idea absconded with by chemistry, along with the idea of a gas, and by the way the idea of flotation in fluids.  A lot of physics is really philosophy, when you get to extrapolating back to the beginning of the universe and the question of parallel universes and a cyclic re-collapse and big bang.  Even arguing about whether human space is worth doing given its huge cost, its risks and its absence of science return, versus robotic exploration, is at its essence philosophical.  Is exploration exploration if the explorers are humans remotely controlling rovers on Mars.  Have “we” landed on mars already?

To kill an animal, but feel it is wrong to kill a human, you have to have a special philosophy that animals can be killed if humans (or other animals) want to, but humans can not be killed by humans nor by animals.   And why that would be considered correct and acceptable behavior – sanctioned killing of anything non-human, is philosophical.  It is a belief that animals, like the universe, like the earth, lack a soul.

We as a culture have decided, have codified in the Bible, that only humans have souls, experience love, loss, joy, sorrow, create art in all its forms, invent things, strive to improve ourselves.  After millions of years of evolution flies are still getting trapped in spider webs, but we people feel to have improved our lot.  Scientists can tell you that these emotions emanate from a thinking mechanism that is highly complex that you are not going to find in a glass of water.  But if you don’t think a glass of water is complex, how about the whole universe, which includes us – isn’t it by definition much more complex than us?  If complexity is the measure, a deer or a bear is just not complex enough?  They do some pretty amazing things those animals, like living without clothing or shelter through a rhode island winter on the food they can find, including reproducing themselves, winter, spring, summer and fall, brutal as the weather may be.  Just how do they do that, these not quite complex enough animals?  Instinct is our one word dismissal.

Ergo we are special and being special give ourselves the right to exploit everything else, and strip it of the soul.  Historically people have done this to other people – to Jews, to Blacks, to Serbs, to women, to the old, to the disabled.  But we now consider that wrong.  The line is officially drawn at our species.  Each member of which has the right to live, at least formally though we not do much to ensure that possibility is realized, whereas the earth and its other inhabitants are only justifiably preserved if we need them for our survival or pleasure.   Is it impossible our current state of enlightenment will never change?  It changed so much in the last 50 years.  A billion years from now that line will still be drawn around humans – but what will that mean in a billion years – we will have evolved, and so will the bears and the deer and the birds.  Who will be inside the line, who outside?

At least as a thought experiment (thank you Einsten for that degree of freedom) it’s worth imagining the crazy idea that in fact everything has a soul, or is a member of a system that has a soul.  OK, you might argue a pebble on the beach does not have a soul, and I’m with you on that one, but if you look at it as a component of the beach, which is a component of the sea-land interface, which is a critical element of the ocean, which accounts for a huge part of the earth’s surface area and biomass and without which the rest of us would not be here, what about that system?

What about the moods of the sea, the patterns of the clouds reflected in a salt pond at dawn in pink and grey and orange, what about the singing of birds on a background of waves reaching the pebbles and sand, what about the clarity of the air on a mountaintop above the clouds, the sad look in your dog’s eyes when she realizes you are leaving for work and faces a day alone in the house, even if you let her sleep on your nice new sofa?

Nature doesn’t create art, you can say staring up at the milky way, at the tiny crescent of the moon following the sun to the horizon on a juicy summer evening through a red atmosphere dripping with water showing off all three of its phases?  Native Americans believed the earth was their mother, giving them all they needed to survive, space, nourishment, warmth, shelter, and the animals and the trees were all parts of that great soul.  They would not harm one bit of her.  We don’t believe that, nor the similar beliefs of the Shinto, now similarly out of fashion in Japan, nor the aborigine, marginalized in Australia and living on their reservations.

Scientists mostly don’t believe in UFOs, and if they do, they are marginalized like the aborigine.  What about Einstein?  What about the speed of light?  If they are so smart, why are they not talking with us – why are they sneaking around our solar system?   Scientists have a science to explain why UFO believers are wrong and not scientists and humans have a philosophy of the soul to marginalize every other element of the entire universe.  Neat.  But right?

I have a philosophical belief that to paraphrase Arthur Clarke, when techies say something is possible, they are usually right, but when they say something is impossible, usually wrong.  He was told that geosynchronous communications satellites were impossible about 25 years before they were in common use carrying our television and radio broadcasts and our phone conversations all around the globe instantly.  Nobody called him back and said “hey guy, sorry about that”.

Einstein is still going to be The Man 100, 1,000, 10,000 years from now?  No loopholes in the speed of light thing?   I claim the least scientific people are those scientists who believe we now have it figured out.  How depressing.  Nobody is going to upset the Grand Order?  There is no use for young people except they can work in little microniches and figure out the energy balance of a cosmic jet or the lifetime of some exotic atom or particle, the thermal conductivity of helium-neon mixtures.  But nobody is ever going to change physics, UFOs are impossible, the world and its limits as we know them will never change.  After a few billion years, we have thought seriously about these things for a couple hundred years and now we can consider the case closed and everything worth knowing is known then.  That’s not comforting to me.  We used to think Newton had mechanics worked out… now we have lasers and semiconductors and curved space time and GPS satellites with clocks corrected for relativistic effects and Einstein, so we are done.

And philosophically we will never change our minds about whether that system which accompanies our world with clouds and waves and rain and plants and birds and the beauty of every day, which evolved everything including us, is not complex enough to have what we have, but instead is merely a sort of chemistry experiment in a large test tube,  unthinking, cold and soul less.   Soul can only be in humans, and much as a deer or a cow may suffer seeing its young child taken from it and killed, that is just the illusion of a soul because only humans are licensed to have them.  Please ignore that man behind the curtain, for I am the Wizard of Oz.

The end of life is the end, time is irreversible – even Einstein did not believe that.  He believed time was a dimension just like the other three, but we so far lacked the ability to traverse it freely at any speed in any direction.  Those lost to us are according to the cold sleek science of 2011 gone forever.  That idea is never going to change either?  The past is gone, the future is the future, all that exists is the present.  But the present is infinitely small.  It leaves very little room for those souls we claim we have.

Descartes advised hedging on the side of belief, since there’s little downside.  If we act  like all these things are soul less and abuse them for our ends, what if it turns out we were wrong.  We can claim we didn’t get the memo?   Our own courts say ignorance of the law is no defense.  Walking softly you risk the rest of humans thinking you an idiot, a pacifist, a child, naïve, burdensome.  The alternative is to act in ways most people will find acceptable.  And what got learned and discovered, what horizons were opened – the idea of the atom,the idea of a spherical earth, the idea of the earth orbiting the sun, the idea of evolution instead of creation, the idea of microorganisms, of extremophyles, geosynchronous satellites, microsatellites, cell phones, personal computers, accepting all the preconceptions and philosophies that ensure you won’t be exiled like the aborigine?

If enough of us become exiles, the exilers will one day find themselves the exiled.  That’s my philosophy.

filling vacuums

May 6, 2011

Leaves turn color in the fall, they told us at Wiley Junior High 8th grade biology, because they were dying and the green chlorophyl was no longer being produced to nourish the tree from sunlight.  I was not paying much attention, the biology of life and death being all about what already is and my interest was in what wasn’t but could be – what I learned to call engineering.  Colors were other materials in the leaf now visible in the absence of green.  Without makeup, the leaves were at the end of their lives to be not what they had led us to believe

Space is empty, they told us, hence black and cold, but with the advantage one can travel through it at incredible speed – no air resistance, nothing to bump into, no gravity.  A very modern philosophy – space was useful, fast, sleek, efficient, but cold and soul less.

Considering that we have plenty of leaves available for close examination, and we swim inside the ocean of space, how to explain how completely wrong we were about them?  And wrong in ways that reflect so neatly our view of the world – the obligation since expulsion from Eden to cover ourselves so long as we live, and that to become modern we shed the baggage of warmth, love and soul so that we can travel light and fast and everywhere instantly.  Photons travel at the speed of light and they never age.  Unless they slow down, exit the vacuum and travel outside it (in air or water) or encounter an absorbing atom, they are immortal.  I want that.

But what I hope is we now have leaves right – green chlorophyl is useless in winter’s weak sunlight, better to build other chemicals to protect the plant during its hibernation, chemicals that are brown, orange, red, not our stereotypical color-of-life green.  Before their death, leaves provide something else, not life, not nourishment, they have a final critical role in the survival of the plant beyond death.  in death they ensure the life of the whole world.

Faced with my own vacuum, I filled it, unable to live up to that ‘60s sleek ideal of aluminum jets and V8s, of cold efficient vacuum.  With energy – writing, racing, commuting between my two countries 6 times a year, teaching, studying Italian, even breaking bones is a sort of welcome distraction.  Like priming a pump with water, pain pushes pain away.  And space?  Apparently also the vacuum doesn’t love a vacuum.  It fills itself with energy, with massless particles rushing around at the speed of light, with pulsating electromagnetic fields.  People talk about harnessing the energy of the vacuum.  Maybe we’ll never make gold from that lead, but lead is not nothing.  There’s a lot less of that vacuum than we thought – all of a sudden 90%, maybe 95% of the entire universe, that thing we are immersed in and which surrounds us all our lives and we see when we stare up and when we look down, that we call space implying that it is empty space, has 20 times more stuff in it than we thought a few years ago – mostly dark matter and invisible energy.

If it works for the cosmos, it works for me.  A vacuum is the absence of everything.  I imagine, still when I stare up at the black winter Rhode Island sky with its diffuse dust of stars punctuating the expanse of apparent nothingness, Nancy existing among that black cold vast emptiness.   The idea scares me and makes my psyche shiver in synch with my freezing body.  I want to be surrounded by the warm wet atmosphere of the earth, with warm sunshine, wind, salt air, sounds of birds and cars and people.  Summertime at the beach.  That she is now a part of this infinitude of absolute zero is impossible to reconcile.

Now we know, and I hope we’re right this time: that imposing infinity of space is vulnerable.  Because a vacuum is the absence of everything, the tiniest amount of energy fills it, the efforts even of one person fills infinity and destroys that vacuum.

The idea is not new – energy and dark matter did the heavy lifting for the cosmos, leaving me to fill my own personal vacuum with my own personal energy.  Three years later, summoning energy, launching myself into the world to fill my vacuum has become a habit.  Is our role to repair the world, Tikkun olam?  That’s what religious school taught me, when the lack-of-religion school taught me that colored leaves lacked chlorophyl and space was empty.  Or is the business of life to fill vacuums with energy?