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.

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.


Anna Kingsford: Doctor, Poet, Theosophist, Activist

Anna Kingsford, born this day in 1846, was one of the rare women to study medicine in the 19th Century.  She was an activist for peace, for women’s suffrage and for vegetarianism and humane treatment of animals, an early anti-vivisectionist.

She had ecstatic visions of the Christian God, which inspired her poetry.

REEDS in the river! reeds in the river!
All the long day through they tremble and shiver!
Men that go past, brush them down with their feet,
But the breeze that comes soft from the westerly sky,
Stirs them to melodies tender and sweet,
May be low laughter, or may be a sigh.

Reeds in the river! reeds in the river!
My thoughts and my rhymes are like reeds in the river!
Some that go past tread them down in disdain,
But the winds of GOD’S heaven that over them blow
Shall presently wake them to music again,
May be of gladness, or may be of woe!

Reeds from the river! reeds from the river!
O I bring you a bundle of reeds from the river!
Fresh smelling reeds, newly gathered and green:
I bring you a bundle of fancies and rhymes,
Though I know that my gift is but lowly and mean,
And fair are the flowers that bloom in our times!

Reeds in the river! reeds in the river!
O deep in my heart like the reeds in the river,
My thoughts grow in darkness, far down out of sight,
And over my life passes shadow and light,
Like sunshine and cloud on the breast of the stream,
But I sit by the banks of my river and dream,
For day after day, they grow silent and strong, ––
The reeds of my Syrinx, the reeds of my song!

She had personal experience with clairvoyance and precognition, but kept her experiences private to avoid compromising her reputation as a medical scientist.  From her Dream book, a dream apparently inspired by her experience with seances and mediums:

I dreamt that I was dead, and wanted to take form and appear to C. in order to converse with him. And it was suggested by those about me – spirits like myself, I suppose – that I might materialise myself through the medium of some man whom they indicated to me. Coming to the place where he was, I was directed to throw myself out forward towards him by an intense concentration of will; which I accordingly tried to do, but without success, though the effort I made was enormous. I can only compare it to the attempt made by a person unable to swim, to fling himself off a platform into deep water. Do all I would, I could not gather myself up for it; and although encouraged and stimulated, and assured I had only to let myself go, my attempts were ineffectual. Even when I had sufficiently collected and prepared myself in one part of my system, the other part failed me.

At length it was suggested to me that I should find it easier if I first took on me the form of the medium. This I at length succeeded in doing, and, to my annoyance, so completely that I materialised myself into the shape not only of his features, but of his clothing also. The effort requisite for this exhausted me to the utmost, so that I was unable to keep up the apparition for more than a few minutes, when I had no choice but to yield to the strain and let myself go again, only in the opposite way. So I went out, and mounted like a sudden flame, and saw myself for a moment like a thin streak of white mist rising in the air; while the comfort and relief I experienced by regaining my light spirit-condition, were indescribable. It was because I had, for want of skill, dematerialised myself without sufficient deliberation, that I had thus rapidly mounted in the air.

After an interval I dreamt that, wishing to see what A. would do in case I appeared to him after my death, I went to him as a spirit and called him by his name. Upon hearing my voice he rose and went to the window and looked out uneasily. On my going close to him and speaking in his ear, he was much disturbed, and ran his hand through his hair and rubbed his head in a puzzled and by no means pleased manner. At the third attempt to attract his attention he rushed to the door, and, calling for a glass, poured out some wine, which he drank. On seeing this, and finding him inaccessible, I desisted, thinking it must often happen to the departed to be distressed by the inability or unwillingness of those they love to receive and recognise them.

– PARIS, JAN. 1878.

Is Enlightenment Socially Irresponsible?

thefindersThe Finders, by Jeffrey A Martin, Integration Press, 2019

Jeffrey Martin calls it a “persistent state of fundamental wellbeing”, but for 2500 years, the Buddhists have called it satori, Hindus say samadhi, Sufis speak of fana, Christian mystics refer to the light of Jesus Christ, while Americans speak generically of enlightenment, once Nirvana came to be inseparable from Kurt Cobain. (Taoism views enlightenment as the natural result of seeing past our conditioning; I’ve been unable to find references to a corresponding concept in Hasidic traditions or the Kabalah. Please comment below if I’m missing something.) 

Martin and the religious mystics agree that enlightenment is founded in a shift in perspective to outside the separate self, and that it is accompanied by a loss of fear, particularly the fear of death. Most of us go through life with a background sense that something is deeply wrong, and we’re constantly solving problems, hoping eventually to address the Big Problem that is making us feel this way. But Finders, the enlightened ones, pass from moment to moment, day to day, knowing the world is perfect just as it is, that their lives are rich beyond measure; they are confident that their lives and the world will continue on their respective perfect paths, and they carry no fundamental anxiety.

In these religious traditions, enlightenment is granted via God’s grace, though practices of abstinence and focused attention may improve ones prospects. What is new in Martin’s approach is science. First he seeks to study the phenomenon of enlightenment in four subspecies, which he says characterizes about half a percent of Western people across lines of religion, class, and culture. More ambitious, he seeks to offer methods by which “anyone” can get thereor at least with a 70% success rate among those who stay to complete his $2,500 course. Oh yes—did I not mention? Martin is also a serial entrepreneur. Does he remind you of Werner Erhard?

The good news is that there’s been a sharp rise in the prevalence of Finders, accelerating over the last two decades. The good news is that this perspective outside the self is somewhat contagious and can be learned. Martin associates the rise in Finderhood with electronic connectivity.

The bad news is that enlightenment doesn’t necessarily make you a good person. Some Finders steal and kill. Some are addicted to alcohol, drugs or tobacco. Some deepen their personal relationships. Some report that they are committed to their friends and loved ones more than ever, but from the outside they appear detached and uncaring. Spouses of a newly Found partner may find that this is no longer someone they wish to live with. One (rare) Finder at Level Four looked across the breakfast table at his daughter and saw a specimen of humanity to whom he felt a loving connection, like all the others. Something in him felt this was wrong, and decided to retreat from Finderhood. 

This is an extreme case, but Martin reports that many Finders are arrogant, have little patience for non-Finders, or even people whose path to enlightenment was was different and unfamiliar. He doesn’t offer statistics about how many Finders devote their newly-liberated capacities to world peace or to preservation of biodiversity. But he tells enough stories that we may wonder if more Finders in the world is an unmitigated good.

Finders can experience a deeper truth or sense of reality that makes the physical world seem less important. This certainly doesn’t make caring for it a higher priority…What about morality and core values? Does becoming a Finder insure that you cannot lie, cheat, steal, or even kill? It doesn’t. There were a number of occasions during the research where blatant lies were offered up during interviews…A tiny number of participants were also accused of participating in criminal activity after the project had interviewed them. This involved allegedly stealing, cheating people in business deals, and similar activities.

Sounds like, “I’m OK—You can be OK or not OK and I don’t give a rusty fuck”. Can enlightenment be akin to sociopathy? Mystics through the ages counsel a long course of moral purification before a novitiate is ready to be groomed for enlightenment. Milarepa’s life is a thousand-year-old cautionary tale from Tibet. As a young man, he acquired magical powers from a Buddhist sorceror, and used them to avenge an encroachment on his inheritance by an aunt and uncle. He killed at will, and wrought unnatural disaster on entire villages before he matured into a saint who devoted the last half of his life to atoning for the first.

I have never met Jeffrey Epstein, but I have second-hand reports from a friend that he could be charming, thoughtful, and generous in his presented self. I have never met Dick Cheney, but I have second-hand reports from a friend that he cared deeply for his family and went out of his way to be kind to people who worked for him, even cooks and housekeepers.

Martin sidesteps the whole arena of political implications, both in the familiar sense of organizing for the communal welfare and in R.D. Laing’s usage in The Politics of Experience. To what extent is our persistent feeling that there’s something deeply wrong connected to the fact that fascist warlords have taken over America, and our media are covering for them? And we might fairly wonder if escape into Fundamental Wellbeing is an irresponsible step with a global ecosystem on the brink of collapse.  Perhaps Martin’s version of enlightenment is colored by our hyper-individualistic, capitalist culture, and other cultures might offer a version of wellbeing rooted in a welcoming communal family. 

To Martin’s credit, he gives his How To book away free. The gist is that different techniques work for different people, that you should seek a teacher who feels sympatico and then try a variety of meditation and other practices, keeping what works and moving on from what doesn’t. The how-to book doesn’t address the question, “how do I know when I’m getting closer?” however, and Martin makes it clear that it’s not a linear path for most people.


A telescope as big as the earth

Suppose you want to see something so far away that it looks really small in the sky. Think of standing in New York and trying to read the date on a quarter in Los Angeles—that small. Any tiny distortion can ruin the image, but after you correct for these, ultimately, what gets you is refraction = the bending of light at the edge of your telescope. So the bigger your telescope, the higher quality image.

How big a telescope is practical? The remarkable answer is that there is now a radio telescope “as big as the earth”. The trick is done by combining data from 3 telescopes at widely dispersed places on the earth, and waiting for the earth to rotate so that these are in different positions relative to the astronomical target.

Think of a CAT scan. X-rays are sent through the body in all different directions, and received at the opposite side of the body. Each X-ray detector contains information about the entire line of flight of the X-rays, and no single detector can tell you about any single point. By combining the data from all the detectors in the right way, an image can be formed. There’s a mathematical way to disentangle the data—“deconvolution” is the word they use—and with the wide availability of number crunching computers, this has become routine.

The same kind of math is used to deconvolve data from the 3 radio telescopes. The result is the world’s first image of a black hole, and it looks just like what the theorists predict it should look like! There’s a dark circle at the center, where light goes in but not out, and then there’s a bright ring around that circle, where matter falling into the BH has become superhot.

An Ancient Civilization in the Amazon

(this is from Graham Hancock’s new book, America Before)

Hancock has convinced me that there was an ancient civilization in the Amazon. I’m intrigued by the possibility that it was more peaceable and more ecologically attuned (read “sustainable”) than Old World civilizations, then or now.

  • In 1542, Friar Gaspar De Carvajal kept a detailed diary on an expedition that navigated the Amazon from its headwaters to its mouth. He reported seeing large, prosperous cities, metalwork and ceramics that rivaled the most advanced in Europe during that time.
  • In the Andes, there are ancient drawings in the ground, hundreds of meters across and comprehended only from the air. Recently, more of these have been found in the Amazon to the East, where they have been obscured by jungle.nazca
  • How did they support large, permanent settlements when the rainforest soil is notorious for being depleted after a couple of seasons of agriculture?  Read about Terra Preta, ADE, or Amazon Dark Earth. This is the best part of the story, because it appears to be an ancient, scientifically-designed system of long-term soil development, which hints at a way of doing agriculture that was lost with the Native American cultures.
  • Persisting even today, more than half the trees and vines growing in the Amazon are domesticated varieties that yield edible or useful products for humans: Manihot (cassava), brazil nuts, rubber, peanuts, pineapple, and sweet potatoes. 

Pizarro pillaged the Inca cilvilization and burned their library in 1526. The rich Amazonian civilization was either a figment of Carvajal’s imagination, or it was destroyed by smallpox and other European diseases—a tragic fate to which many American tribes were known to succumb.

The intriguing possibility is that Amazonians (and perhaps other American native populations) had mastered a new kind of agriculture, which has the potential to resolve our modern, Western culture’s war-to-the-death with natural ecosystems. These people were not hunter-gatherers, nor did they plant row upon row of monoculture. Rather, they enriched natural ecosystems with the plants that were useful to them, taking care to plant different species in mixtures that would be complementary in their effects on the soil’s fungi and bacteria, as well as pest-resistant.

One component of this system was the Terra Preta that continues to sustain fertility of vast regions of the Amazon hundreds of years after it was created by simple, sound management techniques of the native people.

Terra preta owes its characteristic black color to its weathered charcoal content,[2] and was made by adding a mixture of charcoal, bone, broken pottery, compost and manure to the otherwise relatively infertile Amazonian soil. A product of indigenous soil management and slash-and-char agriculture,[3] the charcoal is stable and remains in the soil for thousands of years, binding and retaining minerals and nutrients. [Wikipedia]