The Empty Hills

The grandeur of deep afternoons,
The pomp of haze on marble hills,
Where every white-walled villa swoons
Through violence that heat fulfills,

Pass tirelessly and more alone
Than kings that time has laid aside.
Safe on their massive sea of stone
The empty tufted gardens ride.

Here is no music, where the air
Drives slowly through the airy leaves.
Meaning is aimless motion where
The sinking hummingbird conceives.

No book nor picture has inlaid
This life with darkened gold, but here
Men passionless and dumb invade
A quiet that entrances fear.

— Yvor Winters, born this day in 1900

Image result for dunes

Biological Inheritance of Memories

The idea that a parent could pass inherited characteristics to a child was thoroughly discredited in the 20th Century. The idea that the parent’s learned memories could be transmitted seemed beyond the pale.

Now experiments have forced us to accept these things as possible, perhaps commonplace, though we have very little idea how they work.  We can talk about small RNA molecules and epigenetic imprinting.  But to conceive that these chemical stamps can form a robust language capable of comprehending a broad range of things that an animal might learn—this strains the imagination.

Article in Quanta Magazine

Micrograph of a roundworm with fluorescent green and red highlights of its germline cells and neurons.

Every so often, an inspirational speaker is truly inspiring

Forty years ago, I missed Jean Houston the first time around; but at 82, she’s still at the top of her game.

Space is collapsing, time is warping. The breadth and complexity of our experience as individuals is ten or even a hundred times greater than our ancestors of just a century ago. Today, we are being invited to become worthy of the challenges and opportunities that present themselves. We are asked to recreate ourselves, so that we can respond with creativity, courage, heartfulness, and deep insight and intelligence, to a world that accelerates beyond anything humanity has known before…A thousand years from now, in the fourth milennium, people will look back at us with words to the effect, “Well done, you ancient ones! You gave us our hope, our lives, out history—well done!”


Cui (pronounced ‘tsway’)=Gathering together

I used to see the world as separate things
And tried to understand how they relate,
One to the other, how their acts create
The waves that flow forth in concentric rings.

More recently I’m inclined to suspect
The nodes at which relationships congeal
May constitute the objects we call “real”,
In truth it’s the connections they reflect.

The clarity that this perspective brings
Has demonstrated power to abate
This constant, primal loneliness I feel,
Erode the barriers that I erect,
Diffuse the pride of my internal kings,
So free the heart to swell and spread its wings.

— JJM #45 from the I Ching Sonnet Project



Last night, I read the Tao Te Ching with a group of friends. Lao Tzu tells us over again that good and evil are yin and yang, part of the way of the world, and that we needn’t take sides, certainly not try to impose the way of the Good on those we know to be Evil.

But. (You knew there was a but.)

But he seems to make an exception for war. Over and over, he tells us that the Master never goes to war. He is more subtle than to say “War is evil”, because that would undermine the picture of evil counterposed to good that he has painted elsewhere. So he goes beyond good/evil to tell us in no uncertain terms, “Stay. Away. From. War.”

Today I am joining a March on the Pentagon.

Image result for yin yang peace sign

Frontiers of Physics: the Forest and the Trees

When we think of the frontiers in quantum physics, the examples that come to mind are the Higgs boson and the quest to populate the particle zoo at the limit of very rare, very heavy, very short-lived particles.

But theres another physics frontier, one that is hardly recognized and doesn’t yet attract the press attention or the best minds in physics. Nevertheless, I predict that the next breakthrough in fundamental physics will be in the area of bulk quantum phenomena and not in the physics of single particles.  

The very idea of an independent particle is a limiting ideal in quantum physics. Physicists are comfortable talking about “the wave function of an electron”, but if you press them, they know quite well that this is an approximate way of speaking. Strictly speaking, there is no “wave function of a particle” but always the “wave function of a configuration.” In other words, those probability amplitudes that you hear so much about don’t apply to the probability of an electron being in a particular place at a particular time, but rather to the condition of an entire system. Quantum mechanics is essentially relational.

Why do we hear so little of this? Why are all the cutting edge quantum experiments based on properties of single particles? It’s because the calculations for multiple particles are so complicated that we don’t know how to do them! In classical mechanics, we know how to calculate multiple particle systems, but not in quantum mechanics. In classical physics, calculating three particles is six times as hard as calculating one particle. That’s because there are six pairs of particles, each with their own interaction. But in quantum mechanics, calculating three particles is a billion billion times harder than calculating a single particle. That’s because the space of all possible configurations is a 3*3*3 dimensional space. A 27-dimensional space is just as hard to work in as it sounds. it’s far too complex for even the most powerful computer we have today.

Hence, if we want to compare quantum calculations to experiments, we have to choose a system for which we know how to do the quantum calculation, and that can only be an isolated particle. We’re doing the experiments with isolated particles for the same reason the drunk is looking for his keys under the lamppost.  

We have adopted the approximation of single-particle wave functions because that’s all we know how to compute. Exact quantum computation of a system as simple as a 6-electron carbon atom is far beyond our reach. Hence the physical basis of chemistry and solid state physics is semi-empirical approximation. In other words, we write down a theoretical model, compare the results to observation, and adjust parameters of the model to give us the best fit. All such models depend on the approximation of independent particles, which makes the computations tractable, but also assumes away the massively entangled multi-particle states where interesting new physics may be lurking. 

What Im talking about is exactly what is commonly called “entanglement”. But everything you read about entanglement deals with the simplest case of two entangled particles. In real life, every object that we hold in our hands contains a billion billion billion entangled particles. We need a new way to think about this.

It’s not known whether we can do better than single-particle approximations. It’s not known whether there are novel multi-particle phenomena waiting to be discovered, because we can’t predict them.  This is a backwater where few physicists are thinking, and the paradigms have not expanded since Linus Pauling.

  • Pollack has documented anomalous properties of water that are almost certainly examples of new bulk quantum effects. 
  • Cold fusion has been observed in hundreds of labs around the world over the last 30 years, and yet most physicists are in denial because we have not opened our mind to the idea that fundamentally new physics could be waiting for us in multi-particle systems.  
  • I am among those who believes that there is a frontier in quantum biology — i.e., that all of life has evolved to use bulk quantum effects in ways that are outside the framework of our present paradigm for the quantum basis of chemistry. 
  • Penrose and Stapp have speculated about novel quantum mechanics in the brain (with two very different models). 
  • I could go on to realms yet more remote…evidence for psi phenomena is compelling and it points us toward an expanded notion of the quantum mechanics of many-particle systems as an entree into understanding of the relationship between mind and matter.

If the best minds in physics are stymied by a paucity of high-energy data to guide high-energy theory, perhaps they would find appropriate challenges that are just as fundamental in a quest to understand multi-particle phenomena that doesn’t depend on single-particle approximations.