My Desire

My desire
is always the same; wherever Life
deposits me:
I want to stick my toe
& soon my whole body
into the water.
I want to shake out a fat broom
& sweep dried leaves
bruised blossoms
dead insects
& dust.
I want to grow
It seems impossible that desire
can sometimes transform into devotion;
but this has happened.
And that is how I’ve survived:
how the hole
I carefully tended
in the garden of my heart
grew a heart
to fill it.

— Alice Walker is 75 years old today


For we are on the Mother’s business.  If we stand, She supports us, and however we fall, She will catch us.


‘Labour without joy is base.’

When men are rightly occupied, their amusement grows out of their work, as the colour-petals out of a fruitful flower;—when they are faithfully helpful and compassionate, all their emotions become steady, deep, perpetual, and vivifying to the soul as the natural pulse to the body. But now, having no true business, we pour our whole masculine energy into the false business of money-making; and having no true emotion, we must have false emotions dressed up for us to play with, not innocently, as children with dolls, but guiltily and darkly.

John Ruskin was an idealist, political philosopher and aesthete.  He noticed beauty, and described it in too many words.

Today is the 200th anniversary of John Ruskin’s birth

A new theory of negative mass

It was Einstein who first noted that we have two different definitions of mass.

      1. Mass is inertia.  It’s a measure of how hard it is to get something stationary to start moving or to get something that’s moving to stop.  F=ma.
      2. Mass is the source of gravity.  Mass is attracted to other mass through the weakest force in the universe.  F=Gm1m2 / R2

Einstein elevated the equivalence of gravitational and inertial mass to a founding postulate, the equivalence principle, and on it he built a geometric theory of gravity.

Jamie Farnes, an Oxford University physicist, thinks that some of the mass in the universe is negative.  It has negative gravitational mass and negative inertial mass.  So Farnes-stuff has a repulsive gravitational effect on itself, but it attracts ordinary matter.  In the Farnes universe, negative mass is being continually created, popping out of the vacuum.

What’s the motivation for making a radical new proposal?  Well, 20 years ago, cosmologists realized that the conventional view isn’t viable.  On the one hand, they found that galaxies are held together by a force stronger than their gravitational mass can account for.  On the other hand, they found that the universe is flying apart faster and faster, as if under the influence of some kind of negative gravity.  To solve these two problems, the conventional wing of physical cosmology postulated that 70% of everything in the universe is “dark energy” while 25% is “dark matter”, and only 5% is the matter we’re familiar with.  In order to explain the motions of the 5%, they have invented 95% of stuff that no human has ever seen, heard, or tasted, and that we know for a fact can’t be made of electrons, neutrons, protons, or any of the exotic particles observed in high-energy accelerators.

So Farnes-stuff is no more crazy than the theory it purports to replace, and the advantage, says Farnes, is that it’s just one thing—a single substance that can play the role of both dark matter and dark energy.

I was skeptical about dark energy and dark matter because they were invented out of the blue to rescue a failing theory.  Three hundred years ago, people invented phlogiston to account for the properties of heat, and two hundred years ago there was the luminiferous aether to explain the properties of light.  Today, we understand light and heat without the need for these fictional substances.

But I became less skeptical once I saw a video by Yale astrophysicist Priya Natarajan, describing two ways to locate dark matter in maps of the sky.  (1) she looked for gravitational lenses—concentrations of matter that bend light from distant galaxies and distort the images, or even cause them to appear in two pieces  (2) she reverse-engineered the gravity that binds galaxies together to locate the extra mass that would be needed to keep them from flying apart.  Natarajan shows pictures in which these two maps coincide.  In other words, two different ways to detect dark matter seem to agree.


The question I would like to see Natarajan and Farnes address is whether the same trick works for Farnes-stuff.  Can gravitational lensing and the coherent force in clusters of galaxies be explained in a single map of where the negative mass is hiding?

Coming soon to a world you live on: Pax Sinica

The United States has been in charge of the world since 1945.  Could anyone have done a worse job?  Despite huge increases in productivity, the middle class is stagnating.  Despite no challenge to US military might for the last 30 years, our country continues to be the world’s biggest bully.  We have abrogated treaties, undermined legitimately elected leaders in dozens of democracies (in service to our largest corporations).  We have bombed innocents and supported dictators and made a lot of enemies.

Some people are afraid of what might happen if when China’s growth carries her well beyond the US, and China becomes the reigning superpower.  I look forward to this time as probably a reprieve from violence and a restraint on international policing.

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In American eyes, the contest between America’s and China’s political systems is one between a democracy, where the people freely choose their government and enjoy freedom of speech and of religion, and an autocracy, where the people have no such freedoms. To neutral observers, however, it could just as easily be seen as a choice between a plutocracy in the United States, where major public policy decisions end up favoring the rich over the masses, and a meritocracy in China, where major public policy decisions made by officials chosen by Party elites on the basis of ability and performance have resulted in such a striking alleviation of poverty. One fact cannot be denied. In the past thirty years, the median income of the American worker has not improved: between 1979 and 2013, median hourly wages rose cent—less than 0.2 percent per year.  In the same period, China has lifted 800 million people out of poverty and created the largest middle class in the world.


Many in the West have been alarmed by the enormous power Xi has accumulated, taking it as a harbinger of armed conflict. Xi’s accumulation of power, however, has not fundamentally changed China’s long-­term geopolitical strategy. The Chinese have, for instance, avoided unnecessary wars. Unlike the United States, which is blessed with two nonthreatening neighbors in Canada and Mexico, China has difficult relations with a number of strong, nationalistic neighbors, including India, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam. Quite remarkably, of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom), China is the only one among them that has not fired a single military shot across its border in thirty years, since a brief naval battle between China and Vietnam in 1988. By contrast, even during the relatively peaceful Obama Administration, the American military dropped 26,000 bombs on seven countries in a single year. Evidently, the Chinese understand well the art of strategic restraint.

— Read more from Kishore Mahbubani at Harper’s Mag

John Keay looks at 2,500 years of Chinese history, and concludes that as the Chinese conquer foreign territories, they are usually content to leave in place local customs, cultures, and governments.


(~∃∞) = (Infinity doesn’t exist)

“Where did the Big Bang come from?  Who made it? Answer me that, wise guy!”

It would be plenty Daoist enough to imagine that the Universe popped into existence from the void.  There was nothing, and there was nothing, and there was nothing, and then there was everything.

What Einstein’s equation tells us is another leap beyond what our diminutive brains can grok.  Space-time came into existence at the moment of the Bang. We might stretch our minds to imagine existence outside of space. Existence outside of time is something else again.

∪∉t.    t∈∪

(The world does not exist in time, but time exists within the world.)

The domain of time is part of our Universe.  Another part, part of what exists, is outside of time.


Contemplation of paradox is a path to expanded awareness.  This is the logic of the illogical Zen koan. The mind that forms rational structures to house and to order its knowledge gives up, and a larger mind takes over, one that is capable of encompassing a reality beyond our senses, beyond comprehension, beyond logic.

Existence outside of time.

Time is just one domicile, one possible home for being.  Something birthed space-time, something larger, something capable of encompassing space-time as part of itself.  

Dao is beyond understanding.  Words may be used to speak of it, but they cannot contain it.

Dao existed before words and names, before heaven and earth, before the myriad things.

Therefore, to see beyond all boundaries to the subtle heart of things, dispense with names, with concepts, with expectations and ambitions and differences.

Dao and its many manifestations arise from the same source: subtle wonder within mysterious darkness.

To dwell in the world as it is, we must first dispense with the ambition to understand.

— Dao De Jing (or Tao Te Ching), Brian Browne Walker translation (all except the last line which is my own rendering)


Les Deux Infinis

Infinity as a concept has been made rigorous by mathematicians.  It is assigned a definite meaning so that the symbol ∞ can be manipulated sensibly without undermining the logic of the systems in which it participates.  Mathematicians can talk about infinity because they have come to agreement in advance about precisely what it means.

1 / 0 = ∞

In science, infinity has another meaning, a different meaning that must not be confused with mathematical infinity.  To a physicist, infinity simply means “large enough that we don’t have to worry about running out, or coming to its end.”  Alternatively, infinity is a conceptual tool for approximate calculations. We say something is infinite to justify neglecting terms that are in comparison, that might be added to it or subtracted from it.  We always remember that an infinity must be divided by a comparable infinity before it has a meaningful place in our computations or in our conceptions.  Infinity always cancels out of the equations.

The greater part of quantum field theory consists in rules for how to add and subtract infinities so that we are left with a finite answer.

Physicists acknowledge that we come to practical limits of what we can measure, or of what affects us, so we never have to grapple with mathematical infinity.  Mathematical infinities are not part of our world, not in any sense that has consequence for science.

Astronomers commonly raise the question, Is our Universe finite or infinite?  And the related question, Will the Universe go on forever, or will time come to an end?  They adduce evidence in the form of measurements of speeds and galaxy counts and densities, plug those numbers into Einstein’s equations, and purport to tell us one way or the other. These questions and their answers must be understood in the context of physical infinity, not mathematical infinity.  

Physics offers us enough challenges to stretch our mental framework without having to worry about forever, so there’s one subject on which you can set your mind at ease.

Time, even time had a beginning, and will have an end.

Lesson learnt in the dust

He heard now the voice of that Love in which all subsists, crying through eternity with a sad voice and urgent to its many errant sons. And the most faithful of all answers to this appeal did not come from the infinity which is Its home; but was dragged and distilled from the turmoil of life, from the midst of that sacrificial torment which he had so bitterly and ignorantly regretted. There, in the healing of division, he saw perfect union attained. He, who had now all knowledge, saw himself outstripped by those who had a very little love: and saw also in the satisfaction of his own lust of curiosity an end which even the meanest human soul had hardly held consistently through life.  

— Evelyn Underhill

Image result for hands raised to heaven