In certain moods, we eat our lives away

In certain moods, we eat our lives away
In fast successive greed; we must have more
Although that more depletes our little stock
Of time and peace remaining. We are driven
By endings as by hunger. We must know
How it comes out, the shape o’ the whole, the thread
Whose links are weak or solid, intricate
Or boldly welded in great clumsy loops
Of primitive workmanship. We feel our way
Along the links and we cannot let go
Of this bright chain of curiosity
Which is become our fetter. So it drags
Us through our time—“And then, and then and then,”
Toward our figured consummation.

And we must have the knife, the dart, the noose,
The last embrace, the golden wedding ring
The trump of battle or the deathbed rasp
Although we know and must know, they’re all
Finis, The end, the one consummate shock
That ends all shocks and us. Do we desire
We prancing, cogitating, nervous lives
Movement’s cessation or a maw crammed full
Of sweetest certainty, though with that bliss
We cease as in his thrilling bridal dance
The male wasp finds the bliss and swift surcease
Of his small time i’ the air.

A. S. Byatt, writing as her fictional poet, Randolph Henry Ash


Outlook on the globe from 1922

Our Western civilization is built upon assumptions, which, to a psychologist, are rationalizings of excessive energy. Our industrialism, our militarism, our love of progress, our missionary zeal, our imperialism, our passion for dominating and organizing, all spring from a superflux of the itch for activity. The creed of efficiency for its own sake, without regard for the ends to which it is directed, has become somewhat discredited in Europe since the war, which would have never taken place if the Western nations had been slightly more indolent. But in America this creed is still almost universally accepted; so it is in Japan, and so it is by the Bolsheviks, who have been aiming fundamentally at the Americanization of Russia. Russia, like China, may be described as an artist nation; but unlike China it has been governed, since the time of Peter the Great, by men who wished to introduce all the good and evil of the West. In former days, I might have had no doubt that such men were in the right. Some (though not many) of the Chinese returned students resemble them in the belief that Western push and hustle are the most desirable things on earth. I cannot now take this view. The evils produced in China by indolence seem to me far less disastrous, from the point of view of mankind at large, than those produced throughout the world by the domineering cocksureness of Europe and America. The Great War showed that something is wrong with our civilization; experience of Russia and China has made me believe that those countries can help to show us what it is that is wrong. The Chinese have discovered, and have practised for many centuries, a way of life which, if it could be adopted by all the world, would make all the world happy. We Europeans have not. Our way of life demands strife, exploitation, restless change, discontent and destruction. Efficiency directed to destruction can only end in annihilation, and it is to this consummation that our civilization is tending, if it cannot learn some of that wisdom for which it despises the East.

— Bertrand Russell (The Problem of China, 1922)

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The Truest Adventure

Do you remember what it was like to poke your head out of the womb?  Let me remind you…

Sound bombing your ears.  Temperature that freezes your skin.  Blinding light with incomprehensible patterns spread through the brain.  A bewildering freedom to stretch head and torso and limbs in all directions, but without any skill to control or coordinate movement.  Gravity resists every muscular effort.  The air around feels like icy sandpaper, and when someone tries to wrap you in a blanket it, it’s a hundred times more painful yet.

Why screaming babies are so hard to ignore

The truest adventure is to open oneself to the coming moment free of expectation that it will be like anything you have known before.


Mátyás Seiber

Mátyás Seiber was born in Budapest, 4 May 1905.  He moved to England as a young man to escape the Nazis.  He studied with Kodaly, as you can no doubt hear in this music.  He expanded from there to compose in many different styles, but he was most comfortable and most engaging when he embraced his native East European folk music tradition.

    Jazzolet, a youthful work               Permutationi, a serial composition for wind quintet

Disheartened, he raised his eyes towards the slow-drifting clouds, dappled and seaborne. They were voyaging across the deserts of the sky, a host of nomads on the march, voyaging high over Ireland, westward bound. The Europe they had come from lay out there beyond the Irish Sea, Europe of strange tongues and valleyed and woodbegirt and citadelled and of entrenched and marshalled races. He heard a confused music within him as of memories and names which he was almost conscious of but could not capture even for an instant; then the music seemed to recede, to recede, to recede, and from each receding trail of nebulous music there fell always one longdrawn calling note, piercing like a star the dusk of silence. Again! Again! Again! A voice from beyond the world was calling.

— words of James Joyce, set to music in Three Fragments “atmospheric”

Time is, time was, but time shall be no more.


May Day Mayday

As flowers beneath May’s footstep waken,
As stars from Night’s loose hair are shaken,
As waves arise when loud winds call,
Thoughts sprung where’er that step did fall.

And the prostrate multitude
Looked—and ankle-deep in blood,
Hope, that maiden most serene,
Was walking with a quiet mien:

A rushing light of clouds and splendour,
A sense awakening and yet tender
Was heard and felt — and at its close
These words of joy and fear arose

As if their own indignant Earth
Which gave the sons of England birth
Had felt their blood upon her brow,
And shuddering with a mother’s throe

Had turnèd every drop of blood
By which her face had been bedewed
To an accent unwithstood,—
As if her heart had cried aloud:

‘Men of England, heirs of Glory,
Heroes of unwritten story,
Nurslings of one mighty Mother,
Hopes of her, and one another;

‘Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number—
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you—
Ye are many—they are few.’

Percy Bysshe Shelley (excerpted from The Mask of Anarchy:
Written on the Occasion of the Massacre at Manchester)


Whoa, man — that’s some heavy-duty physics!

I know I’ve said this before, but I feel a need to formulate it anew, so I’m asking you to indulge me.  It’s about identical particles, Bosons and Fermions, and why the world seems solid when we kick it and how physics tells us that everything is really one thing.

Alice and Bob are both people, but you would never confuse them—they’re not identical.  “Identical twins” are a lot closer. Some people can’t tell them apart, but their mother can, their spouses can.  Imagine opening a box from the Acme Ball Bearing Company, picking out two stainless steel balls that look exacly alike.  You really can’t tell them apart. Maybe looking for pits and scratches with a microscope, or with a scale that weighs accurate to a microgram you might be able to distinguish them; but even if you couldn’t tell them apart at all, you would always think it’s a meaningful question to ask, ‘is this one ball number one or ball number two?’

We think of two electrons or two photons (light particles) with an extension of our common sense from larger objects.  They have no nicks or scratches, and even the most sensitive measurement apparatus can’t detect a difference in their mass or any other properties.  But we think of them as distinct in principle.  You, me, and the physics professor, we all think that this electron is the one over here, and that is the one over there.  In fact, micro manipulation technology has allowed us to line up individual atoms in a pattern, and they stay put!

A frame from

This picture is made of individual atoms (courtesy of IBM)

But (you knew there was a “but” coming after this long-winded explanation of what everyone knows) the formalism of quantum mechanics tells a very different story.  Actually, it’s two very different stories, very different from what we imagine and very different from one another.  These are the stories of Bosons and Fermions.

Light is made of photons, which are Bosons.  The equation that governs the movement of a collection of photons, is explicitly symmetrized to account for the fact that the photons are identical in principle.  What I mean by ‘symmetrized’ is that you write down the equation with photon #1 over here and photon #2 over there, then you write the same equation with photon #1 over there and photon #2 over there, you add up the equations and divide by two.  So, what difference does it make to go through this Chinese fire drill, averaging up the two terms that are really no different from one another? Why bother? Yes it makes a difference, it makes a big difference. Technically, it’s because the wave function for the photons is squared before you evaluate the intensity of the light, so that factor of 2 in the average doesn’t come out in the wash.  The probability is twice is high for two photons to be coupled together, moving in lockstep, acting like one big photon. And for a million photons, the probability is a million times as big. Once you get a large number of photons all moving in lockstep, the probabilty for the next photon to join them is very high. The upshot is that lasers are possible. Just a tiny crystal and an LED is enough to line up the photons, all moving in lockstep.  (When I was in college, a laser cost $100,000, but now they’re cheap enough that people buy them just to amuse their cats.)  Lasers work because of the way that identical Bosons behave in quantum mechanics.

Electrons are Fermions, the opposite of Bosons in quantm lingo.  Instead of adding up their wave functions and dividing by two, you subtract them and divide by two.  

[particle #1 here, particle #2 there]  –  [particle #2 here, particle #1 there]   

This minus sign is entirely responsible for the illusion of separateness which is so deeply embedded in our perception of the physical world.  It’s because for the special case where “here” and “there” are the same place, the two terms cancel out and the probability is zero.  For two Bosons to be in the same place at the same time, the probabiliy is doubled; but for two Fermions, the probability is zero. Never happens.  (This is called the Pauli exclusion principle.)  And as the two Fermions get too close together, they start to sense this and they get antsy. They can only be brought very close together by giving them a great deal of energy.  

When “here” and “there” are far apart, we imagine that particle #1 is over here and particle #2 is over there.  Applying our experience from everyday life, we think of them as separate and distinct, but the QM equations are telling a different story.  Both electrons are here, and simultaneously both electrons are there, and the two electrons are conspiring to keep a distance between “here” and “there” — not because they are different electrons, but precisely because their fates are locked perfectly together in this weird way, with the minus sign.          

So, why is the rock hard when you kick it?  Maybe you thought that the atoms in your shoe take up space and the atoms in the rock take up space and they can’t be in the same space at the same time.  That would be wrong. Or maybe you thought the electrons in your shoe have a negative charge and the electrons in the rock have a negative charge, and the two negatives strongly repel each other when they get close together.  That’s a very educated guess, but it’s also wrong.

The reason that the electrons in your shoe and the electrons in the rock kick up a fuss when they are in very close proximity is that the electrons in the rock and in your shoe are, at the most fundamental level, the same electrons, part of the same wave function.  The lowest energy state of that electron pair has two lobes, with empty space between them, and unless you have a whole lot of energy to bring those electrons up to the next higher energy state, they are going to conspire to maintain that empty space between them.

But there are more than two electrons in the world

How would you write the wave function for 3 or 4 or 1080 electrons?  This part gets technical, but I’ll write it down for those who find it fun.

Let’s say there are 3 electrons and three different places.  Call the places One, Two and Three, and call the electrons 1, 2, and 3.  Then


means that the 1st electron is in the first place, the 2nd is in the second place and the 3rd is in the third place.  There are 5 other possibilities. For example, Electron 1 can be in place two and electron 2 can be in place one. Electrons 1 and 2 have swapped places.  Every time that happens, there’s a minus sign. If there are an even number of swaps, then there’s a plus sign; odd number of swaps contributes a minus sign. The wave function has a structure like this.

One(1)Two(2)Three(3) + One(2)Two(3)Three(1) + One(3)Two(1)Three(2)
– One(3)Two(2)Three(1) – One(2)Two(1)Three(3) – One(1)Two(3)Three(2)

Yes, physicists really do work with combinations like this, and they have a name: they’re called Slater determinants.  With just four electrons, there are 12 positive terms and 12 negative terms.  The number of plus and minus terms in the Slater determinant increases very rapidly — I want to say increases exponentially with the number of electrons, but that would be an understatement.  The number of combinations is much bigger than that. There are 1080 electrons in the universe and their wave function is a Slater determinant with 1080! terms.  That’s “1080 factorial” which is the biggest number you’re ever likely to come across in a discussion of one universe.  

Quiz for the truly nerdy:  How big a number is 1080 factorial?  If you tried to write it down, how many digits would you have to write? Is it bigger or smaller than a googol?  Is it bigger or smaller than a googolplex?

We talk about a particular electron being in a particular place, or following a particular orbit.  But this is a shorthand, a fiction. The truth is that every electron in the universe participates equally in this behavior, whatever it is, and all the electrons are continually checking in with each other and coordinating their behaviors, such that if you shine a light on this place and look, exactly one electron will appear under your flashlight, and the one you catch has an equal probability of being any of the 1080 electrons in the universe.  

Ignorance is bliss

“A man’s life would become intolerable, if he knew what was going to happen to him. He would be made aware of future evils, and would suffer their agonies in advance, while he would get no joy of present blessings since he would know how they would end. Ignorance is the necessary condition of human happiness, and it has to be admitted that on the whole mankind observes that condition well. We are almost entirely ignorant of ourselves; absolutely of others. In ignorance, we find our bliss; in illusions, our happiness.”

― Anatole France, (The Gods Are Athirst)

To each his suff’rings: all are men,
         Condemn’d alike to groan,
The tender for another’s pain;
         Th’ unfeeling for his own.
Yet ah! why should they know their fate?
Since sorrow never comes too late,
         And happiness too swiftly flies.
Thought would destroy their paradise.
No more; where ignorance is bliss,
      ’Tis folly to be wise.
― Thomas Gray
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