In other cultures, schizophrenia is a gift

I have sometimes wondered why schizophrenia survives in the human gene pool.  Perhaps it is a way of knowing things that are not accessible to the five senses, but that are supremely useful to a community (even if that knowledge is less dependable than the five senses).

Phil Borges tells about visiting shamans the world over, experiencing firsthand their trances and the knowledge that comes through them, asking their stories and (usually) traumatic childhoods.

Persistent illusion

The concept of Maya comes from the Upanishads…Maya is the creative power of the divine in the physical realm. Maya is Brahman turning upon itself and its own infinite potential, and it is this that creates the power of self-regard in us and other earthly beings.

– In what sense is “Maya” translated as “illusion”?

If the self-regard of Brahman produces the impression that the self is real and the physical world is primary, this is the illusion. But if we realize that ourselves and all the world around us are manifestations of Brahman, then we can find the connection back to the source, and that is the way in which Maya can be overcome, and not be a trap. 

This delusion that we’re in is also part of the grand plan of creation, and part of the self-expression of the divine.  If we take it to be absolute, then we are trapped; but if we take it to be the expression of something true, then we find the truth in it.  Yoga becomes the process by which, instead of escaping from Maya, we at once embrace this world and also understand its relation to the Absolute.

from Devashish Banerjee, interview with Jeffrey Mishlove

Concerto for Orchestra

A concerto is a piece for a virtuoso soloist with a whole orchestra to accompany her. What is a concerto for orchestra? Bela Bartok invented the idea, creating a piece that is virtuosic for every instrument in turn. Other composers have been inspired by his example.

At a time when music was becoming abstract and academic, Morton Gould, born this day in 1913, wrote music that is friendly for the listener. His Concerto for Orchestra is virtuosic, jazzy, and a lot of fun.

Reach out and touch somebody

Admit it. You aren’t like them. You’re not even close. You may occasionally dress yourself up as one of them, watch the same mindless television shows as they do, maybe even eat the same fast food sometimes. But it seems that the more you try to fit in, the more you feel like an outsider, watching the ‘normal people’ as they go about their automatic existences. For every time you say club passwords like ‘Have a nice day’ and ‘Weather’s awful today, eh?’, you yearn inside to say forbidden things like ‘Tell me something that makes you cry’ or ‘What do you think deja vu is for?’. Face it, you even want to talk to that girl in the elevator. But what if that girl in the elevator (and the balding man who walks past your cubicle at work) are thinking the same thing? Who knows what you might learn from taking a chance on conversation with a stranger? Everyone carries a piece of the puzzle. Nobody comes into your life by mere coincidence. Trust your instincts. Do the unexpected. Find the others.
— Timothy Leary

Cosmologists shaking in their boots

Cosmology is arguably the most ambitious of all the sciences. It is built on astronomy, to be sure, but also a great deal of particle physics and quantum theory in energy regions where we have little or no data. 

Learning anything about the universe as a whole requires enormous investments in astronomical observations at all wavelengths and statistical analysis of the collected data. On the back end, these results are compared to computer simulations that start with a few simple assumptions and then follow the physics from the Big Bang to the present, and, finally translate the large-scale picture to a prediction of what we should be seeing as we look out from our present vantage.

Every fact that we have about the universe as a whole was obtained at enormous cost in time, dollars, and effort.  Because the facts we have about the universe are few, in good faith we can only entertain theories that are very simple. For example, if we have 7 measured facts about the universe and a theory with 6 free parameters, the theory is on shaky ground.  If we need 7 free parameters to explain 7 observations, then we are open to the charge that any other theory might serve just as well.

The heyday of physical cosmology began with the discovery of the cosmic microwave background in 1965 and continued through 1997.  Back in the 1970s and 80s, when I was studying astrophysics, there was an enormous sense of excitement and pride because of one agreement between theory and observation.

28% of matter in stars (and interstellar clouds) is hydrogen, and the rest is helium. If we extrapolate the present temperature of the universe (3 degrees above absolute zero as inferred from the cosmic microwave background) back to the big bang, then we could calculate what nuclear reactions would have occurred in the first three minutes that the universe existed. The answer we got was 28% helium, 72% hydrogen. (This story is related in Steven Weinberg’s very readable (but dated) book, The First Three Minutes.)

What happened in 1997 is that two independent measurements of the expansion of the universe both showed that the expansion is speeding up, and this required a negative gravity to explain it. A negative gravity substance was postulated and given the name “dark energy”, and another kind of matter, “dark matter” was needed as well, partially to make up for the dark energy.  We know absolutely nothing about either DM or DE except that they utterly resist detection by any means outside these observations of the structure of galaxies and clusters of galaxies.  

Since 1997, cosmology has been in an uncomfortable zone where science really can’t do business: there are more assumptions that go into the model than there are facts that the model can explain.  Clearly, we need more observations, more facts, more opportunities to test and constrain existing theories.

This has been a golden age for automated observation of the heavens and sophisticated data analysis.  As the new observations come in, The problem has been getting worse. Sober, conservative leaders in the field speak of a crisis in cosmology. Two such articles have appeared in recent months. The one that I just linked (by my Harvard classmate of 50 years ago, Joseph Silk) notes that theorists have indulged in a kind of cheating to make their models appear consistent with the data. They have chosen parameters for the expansion and the density of the universe that are halfway between values measured by two kinds of methodologies. If you compare Observation A to the model, it is just on the edge of being plausible. If you compare Observation B to the model, it is just on the edge of being plausible in the other direction. But, as Dr Silk points out, if you compare Observation A directly to Observation B, you realize that the two are too far apart to be compatible, and that our research and analysis methods must be called into question.

Dr Becky Smethurst emphasizes that one implication of the new perspective is that the universe is closed and finite and will not expand forever.

The other recent article notes that all of the measurements that pointed to speed-up in the expansion (and the need for dark energy) came from one direction in the sky.  If you look in the opposite direction, the epansion is slowing down. Maybe it’s not that the whold universe is changing its expansion at all, but only that our little neighborhood has shifted direction. But we’re out of the frying pan, into the fire, because the same evidence suggests that the universe may not be completely uniform and symmetrical, as theories have always assumed. The trouble with asymmetrical models is that they call into question the very simple equations that are our hope for staying within 6 or 7 free parameters. There’s a worse problem, actually: The equations of gravity (Einstein’s General Relativity) are so insanely complicated that they cannot be solved even with the largest supercomputers we have except in the case where the equations are enormously simplified either by (1) a very high degree of symmetry that vastly reduces the complexity, or (2) weak fields, called the “Newtonian limit”. If this situation persists, we will have 

Sabine Hossenfelder does a good job of explaining the context in this video.

Better angels

The phrase was first used by Abraham Lincoln in his inaugural address, Jan 1861.

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Illustration by YES! Magazine

Image courtesy of YES magazine


A carved boulder from ancient Inca civilization

The Sayhuite monolith.

The Sayhuite Monolith. 13 feet wide, with drainage holes around the edges, as though it were part of an intricate fountain.

We don’t know when or how it was carved or even how it was transported, or what it was used for. The Spanish conquitador Francisco Pizzaro systematically destroyed the Inca culture, burning books and genocide. All we know is that it was rich with ways of living just as sophisticated but very different from the Europeans science, culture and economy.