Go to bed

Early to bed and early to rise
Makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise
Ben FranklinMathew HenryJohn Clarke?

Science has determined that going to bed early and rising early makes you happy.  Or maybe it’s the genes that make you an early riser that make you happy.  Or maybe it’s the genes that make you go to bed early, and then going to bed early makes you happy.  It’s hard to tell these things.

IS it not better at an early hour
In its calm cell to rest the weary head,
While birds are singing and while blooms the bower,
Than sit the fire out and go starv’d to bed?

— Walter Savage Landor, born this day in 1775

Joseph Ducreux (French) - Self-Portrait, Yawning - Google Art Project.jpg


God scatters beauty as he scatters flowers____
O’er the wide earth, and tells us all are ours._
A hundred lights in every temple burn,______
And at each shrine I bend my knee in turn.__

Walter Savage Landor


Weaponized snot

A car is covered in hagfish, and slime, after an accident on Highway 101.

This car was disabled when it passed through a puddle of slime left by an overturned truck bearing hagfish to market.

The hagfish produces such copious amounts of slime that it can immobilize prey, or clog the gills of an attacking shark.

Hagfish are true fish, but of an ancient order similar to lampreys that separated from bony fishes 300 million years ago.  They look like eels, but have even more flexible bodies beneath a loose bag of skin.

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Hagfish eat by boring through the carcass of a dead fish, then absorbing nutrients through their skin.  The mouth is just a drill head.

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They’re a delicacy in Korea.

Article in The Atlantic

The Measure of All Things

For 99.99% of the history of the living earth, there were no human beings on its surface.  Was this world of no value, an extravagant waste because there was “no one there to appreciate it”?

And for most of the remaining 0.01%, humans had a negligible global impact on the web of life.  So, during that time, were things better or worse?

Image result for most beautiful tree

If man is the measure of all things, then it makes no sense to ask about the beauty of a biosphere on which no man opened his eyes. But if elephants can paint, then surely they have a visual aesthetic, and even human musicians recognize a beauty in the cetacean’s song. Birds decorate their nests, and spiders love symmetry. Some butterflies rival the peacock’s prodigious pulchritude, and even the bees seem to prefer a pretty flower to a plain one.

Beautiful Bee In Flower</a>

Can trees and mushrooms be unaware of their beauty?

amanita_muscaria_fly_agaric beautiful mushroom photography

We do not have to stretch far to imagine a broader sense of beauty shared by animals

Just as we are awash in numb, blind terror of impending death, though we regard the aeons of time before our birth with equanimity, so we view human extinction as the ultimate apocalypse, rather than a return to normalcy.

Estimates of the probability of near-term human extinction differ widely. Probably, the question is not subject to probabilistic analysis. But it is hardly unthinkable, for those of us with the courage to indulge in the folly of thought.

What would the brontosaurus have said if you told him that he would be succeeded by fieldmice?

Hal, tell me what you’re thinking

Computer learning systems are solving big problems.  The programmer doesn’t tell the computer how to proceed, but merely provides massive amounts of data for the computer to learn with.  The computer sets about blindly looking for patterns in the data and sometimes finds patterns that people would never see.

Examples include:

On the one hand, it’s great to to have someone who really “thinks different” looking at the data and making suggestions.  On the other hand, it’s a human being who is going to use this pattern or (formula or algorithm of diagnosis or plan) at the end of the day, and often the stakes are high.  How is the human to know that this crazy idea the computer came up with isn’t just an artifact of the data, or a programming error?

“Hal, explain yourself!”

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Over at Google Brain, Been Kim has worked on this problem, and now has (the beginnings of) an interface to query the computer, so we might learn not only what the computer’s solution is, but how it got there.

Survival of the Beautifulest


Darwin explained the extravagant beauty of some birds, fish and insects as providing an advantage in attracting mates.  He called it sexual selection, and he was pretty clear that the process was different from acquisition of traits that had practical use in an objective sense.  Female preferences co-evolve with male coloration.

Image result for wildflowers

It is hard to escape the conclusion that there is something wonderful here that transcends the quest for mating success.  Why is it that the peacock’s aesthetics or the butterfly’s taste for color should resonate so well with our human perceptions of what is beautiful?

This NYTimes Mag article flirts with the idea that beauty is not entirely explained by evolutionary science.

What we call beauty is not simply one thing or another, neither wholly purposeful nor entirely random, neither merely a property nor a feeling. Beauty is a dialogue between perceiver and perceived. Beauty is the world’s answer to the audacity of a flower. It is the way a bee spills across the lip of a yawning buttercup; it is the care with which a satin bowerbird selects a hibiscus bloom; it is the impulse to recreate water lilies with oil and canvas; it is the need to place roses on a grave.

Image result for butterfly coloration

Many universes?

“The universe” is, by definition, everything we can ever know anything about.  It’s hard enough to know about things (in our one universe) that are small and far away, at temperatures beyond what we can create in a laboratory.  It’s hard enough to know details of our evolutionary past, unable to do experiments, dependent on a spotty fossil record and conflicting studies of DNA similarity.  I’d say science has enough on its plate with trying to figure out this universe.  There’s no need to take on other universes, about which we can know nothing.

Last week, I wrote about the Anthropic Principle, which prompted mainstream astronomers to postulate the existence of zillions of other universes to avoid the alternative inference: that life is as primary as physics—that the purpose of our universe is to be a home for life.

There is another realm where physicists have postulated the existence of (even more unthinkably many) extra universes in order to save their 19th Century worldview.  That is in quantum mechanics.

QM is a set of equations for determining how the wave function changes over time.  Roughly speaking, if you know how the probability of a particle’s presence is spread out over space at any one time, you can use the QM equation to project that same knowledge into the future, to tell you, for example, what the probabilities will be for finding the particle at various points in space one second from now.  This is the mathematically-intricate but unmysterious part of QM.

The mysterious part is what happens when an observation is made.  All of a sudden, the wave function stops being what it used to be, and all probability becomes concentrated at a single point in space, where you saw the particle in your observation.  Then the equation picks up from there to start projecting a new future, based on your new knowledge.

The problem with this is: “What do you mean by an observation?”  If an observation is made by a physical system, then that physical system is governed by the same QM equations, and it shouldn’t be treated as an observation at all—just a more inclusive wave function that includes both systems.  Why should you need special rules for observations?  Aren’t Geiger counters and cloud chambers just physical systems subject to the rules of QM?  For that matter, aren’t human scientists just physical systems subject to the same rules as non-living systems?

The standard answer these days is to say that there are no observations, only different universes in which we might find ourselves, different universes in which the electron was here and it was there, different universes in which the photon spins to the right or the left, different universes in which the electron went through the left slit and in which it went through the right slit.  Every particle, every billionth of a billionth of a second, is splitting the universe into copy universes, each a tiny bit different from the other universes, each going its own way.  This is called the Many Worlds Interpretation of QM.  “Many” is the biggest understatement in science.

The reason the Many Worlds Interpretation has become popular is simply to avoid the alternative implication: that there is something outside of physics that is doing the observing.  In the MWI, all you need is a universal wave function—but a universal wave function for each universe, and there is a god-awful proliferation of universes.

In the minority view, there is just one universe, but it contains consciousness in addition to wave functions.  It is consciousness that collapses wave functions, and consciousness has an independent existence, separate from matter, able to influence matter (by making observations, collapsing the wave function).  Various versions of this view were promoted by such luminaries as von Neuman, Wigner, Bohm, and Schrödinger himself.

This story is another instance in which science is crying out for an interpretation congruent with ancient mystical ideas, but the science establishment recoils and invents a gazillion universes to avoid having to associate with mysticism.


How special is our universe?

Ask a physicist to imagine a universe different from our own.  Maybe gravity is ten times as strong. Imagine another one. There are 4 dimensions of space instead of 3.  Maybe the charge on an electron is 10% bigger than what it is in our world.

When I was a grad student in the 1970s, I wanted to ask the question, “how many of these universes are capable of supporting life?”  In other words, “how special is our universe?”

Before that decade, scientists assumed that the laws of physics were arbitrary and that life used them opportunistically.  In fact most scientists and most people still think that way.

The laws of physics were imprinted on the universe at the Big Bang, and life originated when a particular configuration happened to be able to make copies of itself.  All the rest is explained by Darwin. [the classic materialist perspective.]

That started to change in 1973, when a young Australian physicist named Brandon Carter wrote about an extraordinary series of what-ifs.  If the gravitational force were just a little weaker, there would be no galaxies or stars, nothing in the universe but spread-out gas and dust.  If the electric charge of the proton were just a bit bigger, hydrogen would be the only chemical element. If our world had four (or more) dimensions instead of three, there would be no stable orbits, no solar systems because planets would would quickly fly off into space or fall into the star; for that matter, there would be no stable galaxies in which solar systems might form in the first place.

When I proposed to my graduate adviser in 1979 that I wanted to write a dissertation on the question, “how special is a universe that can support life?” he told me the question was not yet ripe, that physicists did not have any way to interpret “special” by assigning probabilities.

But others have worked on the question.  Now, forty years later, physicists are agreed that our universe is very special indeed.  The vast majority of imaginable physical laws give rise to universes that are terminally boring.  They quickly go to thermodynamic equilibrium = “heat death”, so that nothing can happen. Or they Bang and then turn around and collapse so quickly that there’s no time for anything interesting.  Or they don’t support chemistry, or anything like it. Or they produce starlight that is too hot or too cold to interact with chemistry, so there’s no photosynthesis. Or….

So many things that can go wrong!  The inescapable conclusion is that this universe that we live in is a rare gem.  The probability of laws that can support life is infinitesimal. This has been called the Anthropic Principle.

Image result for world in palm

Two Interpretations

Scientists mostly don’t take account of this extraordinary fact; they go on as if life were an inevitability, an accident waiting to happen.  But those who have thought about the Anthropic Princple fall in two camps:

The majority opinion:  There are millions and trillions and gazillions of alternative universes.  They all exist. They are all equally “real”. But, of course, there’s no one looking at most of them.  It’s no coincidence that our universe is one of the tiny proportion that can support life; the very fact that we are who we are, that we are able to ask this question, implies that we are in one of the extremely lucky universes.

The minority opinion:  Life is fundamental, more fundamental than matter.  Consciousness is perhaps a physical entity, as Schrödinger thought; or perhaps it exists in a world apart from space-time, as Descartes implied 300 years before Schrödinger; or perhaps there is a Platonic world of “forms” or “ideals” [various translations of Plato’s είδος] that is primary, and that our physical world is a shadow or a concretization of that world.  One way or another, it is consciousness that has given rise to physics, and not the other way around.

I prefer the minority view

I am a mystic as well as a scientist, and the minority view resonates for me.  I worry that this is superstitious or even wishful thinking, so I examine the scientific evidence.

The argument for the majority view is in the nature of science.  Science asks, “what about the world can we agree on?” Getting the observer out of the picture is the essence of science.  Historically, the Enlightenment began, and with it the scientific age, when man was first willing to step aside from center stage long enough to describe an objective physical reality that exists independent of himself.  We have worked for centuries to emerge from the prejudices and superstitions of religious beliefs. We don’t want to let them creep in by the back door. It is to preserve the Copernican revolution that most scientists would rather imagine a large number of dead universes, rather than revert to the idea that man is special.

Of course, it is impossible to disprove the existence of gazillions of other universes, but it is also impossible to impute any evidence in favor of their existence.  I find it inelegant for a theory to carry so much baggage, to assume so much in order to explain so little. It is an extravagant waste of universes. These are aesthetic objections to the majority.

There are also scientific reasons to prefer the mystical view.

  • Quantum mechanics requires an observer.  Nothing is reified until it is observed, and the observer’s probes help determine what it is that is reified.  Physicists debate what the “observer” means, but if we assume that it is a physical entity, paradoxes arise; hence the “observer” must be something outside the laws that determine the evolution of quantum probability waves.  Cartesian dualism provides a natural home for the “observer”.
  • Parapsychology experiments provide a great many indications that awareness (and memory) have an existence apart from the physical brain.  These include near-death experiences, telepathy, precognition, and clairvoyance.
  • Moreover, mental intentions have been observed to affect reality.  This is psychokinesis, from spoon-bending to shading the probabilities dictated by quantum mechanics.

Finally, the idea that consciousness is primary connects to mystical texts that go back thousands of years.

Dao existed before heaven and earth, before the ten thousand things.  It is the unbounded mother of all living things.
— from the Dao De Jing of Lao Tzu

We create our life as the spider spins its web.  We dream our lives, then we live in the dream. This is true for all the world.
— from the Upanishads (ancient Hindu scripture)

You are what you think. All that you are arises from your thoughts. With your thoughts you make your world.
— Dhammapada (Buddhist bible)

Know that the world is uncreated, as time itself is, without beginning or end, and is based on the principles, life and rest. Uncreated and indestructible, it endures under the compulsion of its own nature.
— Jinasena (Jainist saint)

“The dreamers are the saviors of the world. As the visible world is sustained by the invisible, so men, through all their trials and sins and sordid vocations, are nourished by the beautiful visions of their solitary dreamers.”
— James Allen (As a Man Thinketh)

For as long as history can recount, mystics have been telling us that the nature of the world is primarily mental, and that the world of matter and sense is a veil of illusion.  Modern gurus and people who come back from near-death experiences and Jesus Christ and Plato and Depak Chopra all agree. Maybe they’re right.

The world is special because we made it that way — “we”  in the very largest sense.

Next week: An analogous choice in interpreting QM.