Sunday, May 8, 2022

The Secret of Evolution

Orange polygon

While out walking the other day I saw a seed pod that had fallen from the chestnut tree overhead onto the sidewalk, had been crushed, and dried out. And that got me thinking: whatever new and useful mutations that seed might have contained were now wasted, dismissed by evolution in a random event, by sheer bad luck, for failure of germination.

And that seed represents all life everywhere in the universe. To paraphrase the Bible, some seed falls on good ground and thrives, some on barren ground and dies. To paraphrase the basic tenet of evolution: that which thrives and breeds, survives and directs the future; that which shrivels and dies, does not. The secret of evolution is that a thousand, a hundred thousand, maybe a million seeds from that one tree over its lifetime will fall to the ground; some might get random mutations, and others might not. But for most of them, it does not matter, because only a few of them survive and grow into another tall tree to continue the cycle. A million seeds, random mutation, random extinction, only one or two successes to shape the future.

The secret of evolution is that events indeed are random, but the direction is still purposeful: that which thrives, survives. Period, full stop. Existence rewards success with more existence, and improvement is its own reward, judged solely by the bearer’s ability to contribute to thriving and surviving.

From this we get not just bacterial mats, corals, mosses, and chestnut trees. We get butterflies, robins, hawks, and human beings. And on the way to those ends we get crayfish, dormice, and dinosaurs. And those are not the end of evolution at all, because humans, so far, have created the steam engine, internal combustion, radios, computers, and the first whiffs of artificial intelligence. We have cracked the code of DNA and are learning to repair our own selves and heal the world around us. With more to come. The advances come randomly, but the effect is purposeful.

This is something that the followers of creationism or “intelligent design” do not understand. They look at the structure of, say, the human eyeball, a self-adjusting camera built out of collagen, proteins, and colloids, and marvel at its complexity and its purposeful functioning. They believe that for something to have purpose, it must have been designed to achieve that end. Some greater intelligence must have thought out the structure in advance and then placed each fiber, each protein, just so as to create the effect of a working eyeball. They don’t see how random chance could have achieved this.

But two things, perhaps three, get in the way of their thinking. First, they don’t understand how long evolution has been working on eyeballs. The first eyes—or light-sensing nerve endings—date back to the Cambrian explosion, when single-celled life began forming collective beings with differentiated cells, about 540 million years ago. Since that time, eyes diverged between the compound, crystalline structures of the insects and single-focus, globular structures of the fish, which successively became the amphibians, reptiles, and the mammals that followed them. Half a billion years is a long time to experiment with light-gathering techniques.

And the core command of evolution governs the process. Mutations in the genes for eyes that improve light gathering, detection, and discrimination in the environment into which the individual is born will help it thrive and breed. Mutations which damage or deteriorate those functions keep it from thriving and breeding.1

When I was working at the biotech company, I learned about a technique called “directed evolution.” The scientists there were working on improving the function of their Thermus aquaticus (that is, hot water bacteria) polymerase, the molecule that zips along a single strand of DNA during replication and adds complementary bases (that is, A’s to T’s, C’s to G’s, and vice versa). Now, as one scientist explained to me, she had no idea how to improve the polymerase. She couldn’t design a better one, because we don’t really understand what drives it in the first place. But she had the DNA code for the polymerase molecule they were working with.

In the process of directed evolution, she copied the polymerase DNA a dozen or a hundred times. Then she made a random mutation somewhere in each of the samples. She used the altered samples to make new copies of the polymerase protein and tested those mutated proteins for function. Those that worked better than the wild-type protein that the company was currently using, she kept; those that worked no better or worked worked not as well, she discarded. From each of the slightly improved samples, she made a dozen or a hundred more copies and gave each of them another random mutation. Repeat and repeat: mutate, grow new proteins, test them; keep the successes and discard the failures—even if one of the samples that worked better in the first batch worked no better now or showed a slight decrease in function. Keep up the process a couple of dozen more times, and eventually she would get a polymerase that reliably worked better than the wild type.

The point is, this scientist did not have to design the DNA sequence that world work better. She did not have to plan out the mutations that would achieve it. She only had to arrange for sequential additions of random mutations and test each one under the rule that anything that succeeds survives, and anything that fails disappears. The test is fitness for a specific purpose. And sometimes it takes many iterations of testing and discarding to change the future.

The second thing that gets in the way of looking at evolution vs. intelligent design is that the followers of the latter look around and see the world in fixed form. They think horses have their present shape and function because there is something perfect and eternal about “horsiness,” which was Plato’s idea of an eternal prototype existing somewhere out in the cosmos. The horse eats grass and has a compact foot with a single, rounded hoof because it runs over solid ground, which that hoof can easily navigate, and that ground happened to be covered with rich grass. But early horses had toes, just like most tetrapod mammals, and only adapted to standing on a single, developed “finger” with a rounded “fingernail” because it found itself in a suitable environment over preceding generations. And the same with the horse eating the available grass as opposed to leaves or berries or other foods.

Life is change. That which adapts through mutation and selection of successful traits, survives and directs the future; that which fails to adapt, dies. Humans are also in a state of change. We will evolve eventually, especially if our environment changes slowly enough for random mutation to do its work.2 Or we might, through our own enhanced brains and understanding, take over our germline evolution and create new variants, perhaps even a new species, with a form and function, skills and traits, that our knowledge and foresight—or perhaps our ideologies—decide would be better.

But even then, we won’t become intelligent, designing gods, but more like random selectors, rolling dice and hoping for a better outcome. And in that case, a lot of our seeds will fall on barren ground.

1. Of course, the process is a bit more subtle and complex than that. Some mutations have no obvious immediate effect. For example, DNA’s three-base reading frame is structured—by random selection, of course—so that changing the third base pair (dubbed “the wobble”) does not always change the amino acid which the reading frame codes for. This has the effect of slowing the rate of effective mutations.
    And then, not every amino acid compiled in a particular protein has a direct and immediate effect on that protein’s function. So some mutations wait in the cell’s DNA, dormant and unchanging, perhaps over generations, for the chance to meet up with another subtle mutation that may then, working together, affect form or function.
    And finally, mutations that occur in the somatic cells—those out in the body of the organism—never get carried forward. It is only changes in the germline cells—those that are segregated early in the testes to become sperm and the ovaries to become eggs—that go on to affect future generations. But once an egg or sperm carries a mutation—and only if it happens to join with its opposite number to actually create new life—it propagates that mutation to all the cells in the new body. And some of those—perhaps in the eye tissue of our example—will either improve or damage the tissue’s function.

2. And if not, then study the dinosaurs.

Sunday, May 1, 2022


Grinning dog

I was making my dog’s breakfast the other morning—and yes, she eats twice a day, morning and evening, same meal—and noted that after all these years, she’s still excited about it. She noses the bag of kibble and jumps up on her hind legs as I take out the can of soft food to put on top of the kibble. Always the same eagerness to get what is exactly the same meal she has been eating, morning and evening, for the past seven years. Maybe it’s hunger pangs, but she gets fed regularly enough that she shouldn’t be bothered by them. It’s just that, with the same meal twice a day, you think she would get bored with it, become picky, sometimes turn her nose up.

And she’s still excited to go out for her walks every day, the same dancing and tail wagging, the same pulling on the leash. We walk four, sometimes five, times each day, almost always the same route, always the same smells from other dogs in the condo complex. The excitement may have something to do with relief of her biological processes, but she doesn’t always let go as soon as she reaches open ground. So it’s not just urgency of bladder and bowel. She is actually excited to be seeing the wide world, again, and again, and again.

Why doesn’t a dog get bored with its existence? How does it keep enthusiasm for the same routine, day in and day out, that would drive a human being to distraction? I think the answer is that the dog has no—or very limited—imagination. It cannot think of something different that it would like to do. In its existential being, a dog is experiencing everything—short of pain and maltreatment—as the way things should be, the good life, oh boy!

My belief is that dogs and other animals have brains, sensations, understanding, and emotions not unlike us humans. What they lack is an essential sense of self. They do not have the capacity to see themselves in what they do and feel.1 They can certainly register a pain such as hunger, or a pleasure like the effects of being talked to and stroked. They feel loss when separated from their pack members—in this case, me when I leave the apartment—or other social structure. But they don’t have the introspection to place themselves in an existential situation (“Now I am alone”) or the imagination to create an alternate reality which they might emotionally inhabit (“I wish my master, guardian, pack leader were here to comfort me”).

To become bored with your current existence requires that you have the introspection to perceive it as something separate from your immediate feelings and the imagination to create an alternate existence, however fanciful, that you might actually occupy—or simply think is possible.

To be bored with your breakfast, you have to imagine eating something else that you’d like better. To be bored with your daily walk, you have to imagine someplace else you’d like to go. All this raises the interesting question of whether the dog would become bored with her breakfast if I fed her a varied diet, sometimes kibble and canned soft food—although I do vary the labeled flavors and consistencies of both when I shop for her—sometimes a bowl of my own daily oatmeal with milk, or a cut-up steak, or anything else that would not harm her? And note that bits of human food fed by hand or licked out of a used bowl have great “status” with dogs, indicating that they are being treated more like one of the family. So then, would she yawn and turn away from the kibble and soft food, knowing that she might—in her early morning imagination—get something better?

Would she become bored with the same walk around the property and around the block if sometimes we stepped out of the door to drive to the park, sometimes went to the woods or the beach, where there were new and exciting smells? Dogs love to find a dead seagull because of, you know, the opportunity to roll in it.

I don’t know, but I doubt it. I occasionally give her hand-fed bits of nuts, potato chips, and popcorn, or let her lick my cereal bowl. So she has altered foods in her memory, but she’s still excited by the old kibble-and-canned. And she knows about going to the park and still pulls on her leash to walk out back among the familiar smells.

Dogs do still get bored. When I am at my computer, the dog settles down on a cushion under the desk. When I have to go out, she retreats to the bed or to a sunny patch just inside the window. And there she sleeps or at least shuts her eyes and pretends to sleep. I know that I am boring the dog because she is not getting enough stimulating company to do anything else but sleep. But there again, she doesn’t fret, pace, and grumble about my not paying enough attention to her. She doesn’t come out from under the desk or out of the bedrooms until her biological clock says it’s time for the afternoon walk and feed. And if I get up from work for something, she often—but not always—follows me to see if there’s something interesting to do. But I doubt she has much idea about what that might be.

A dog’s life might look to a human like an extended prison stay, with the same slop served morning and evening, limited bathroom breaks, and not much to do for the rest of the day until the warden says it’s time for exercise. But the dog seems happy enough and leaps at the chance.

1. This apparently is not true for all animals. Dolphins, certain whales, perhaps most primates, and possibly elephants appear to have a sense of themselves. They can recognize themselves in a mirror, whereas a dog or cat on encountering a mirror—if it notices the reflective capability at all—will think it’s seeing another dog or cat and react accordingly. But put a mirror in a dolphin’s pool, then strap a funny hat on the dolphin’s head, and it will immediately go to the mirror to see what you have done. It knows that what it is seeing in the mirror relates to itself, and so it has a self-image and perception of itself as a separate and distinct being.

Sunday, April 24, 2022

My Imaginary Friends

Girl with magic box

Try to wrap your head around this: a book is a wholly imaginary thing until the author starts putting words down on paper or types them into a file. The characters are like imaginary friends. The setting is like a dream place. The time is indeterminate, also like a dream. The whole thing—or at least the parts of it that attracted the author in the first place—are just a series of pathways between neurons, sometimes present and active, sometimes dormant in the author’s mind. Sometimes dormant for years, until some aspect of daily living recalls them. And then they wake to semi-conscious life.

Similarly, a painting is an imaginary place or face or, in the case of abstractions, a mood or image, until the painter picks up charcoal or paint and begins outlining the basic structure, selecting colors, fleshing out—what a wonderful metaphor!—the details. And a symphony or even a simple song is just a whisp in the brain of the composer until he or she begins sounding out notes and chords, putting together the refrain, working out the details or, in the case of a full-blown orchestral work, arranging the parts for the various sections.

I’ve often said that being a writer is like renting half your mind to a troupe of actors who are trying out a new play. If you have an outline in mind, then the actors are rehearsing their lines and planning the staging. If you are “pantsing” it—that is, writing from the seat of your pants—then they are thinking up bits of improvisation and suggesting places they might like to go. They will awaken you in the middle of the night for a sudden inspiration about how the plot should advance, or sometimes for just the right word to insert into an already cast line of dialogue. Once you admit them to the stage at the back of your mind, they can be very insistent.

Of course, all of this material, the imagery, people, dialogues, faces and settings, melody and words, comes from the writer’s, painter’s, or composer’s subconscious—at least for me. Maybe some writers, painters, and composers can sit down and work out a story, image, or song from first principles, drawing from some mechanistic formula for structuring the work they want to accomplish. I can’t do that. I can’t think up a plot all in one setting and set a group of previously established character types to following it. Maybe that means I’m not a professional writer but instead a bumbling amateur, and so be it.

My ideas have to grow organically. I start with a situation, a setting, a dominant character. And these are things that I may have been ruminating for decades, slowly jotting down ideas and notes, putting them in folders, stashing them away. When one of these folders or simple files gets enough material together, I may then decide it will be the next book I tackle. That decision promotes it to active status, and I begin inviting the midnight players to set up shop.

Then the process of establishing characters, settings, story line, and plot points, collecting bits of trivia and lines of dialogue, and trying out scenes that will fit into the outline. Then I am simultaneously including or rejecting elements of the story: this bit fits but that one, attractive as it might be, does not. It is a process of feeling out the book, deciding based on subconscious clues that occur to me during the day or night—standing in the shower with hot water hitting my right should seems to be particularly fruitful—what the book will be.1

The book as it develops and reaches final form on paper, or as pixelated words on a screen and stored in a file, is almost never what the original idea seemed to be. Often that was just a whisp or a feeling, a sense of what a certain character might be, that does not stand up to scrutiny in my subconscious development or in the mouths of the midnight troupe. My characters have a way of developing themselves, of being offered certain plot points and choices and then rejecting them, of making clear which words they will say and which they won’t. That’s the organic process.

Working organically, from the subconscious, almost involving the characters as my imaginary friends, is the way I keep the story and the people in it “real”—at least for me. I have to believe in the story as I write, at least in the moment of actual creation of the words on what I call the “production draft.” Character names and attributes, plot developments, bits of dialogue, artifacts of the story, all exist as potentials to be chosen or not during the notes and the outlining stage of the book. But when I sit down to write “what really happened,” then things become awfully—as in “full of awe and wonder”—real. Then I am most fully in touch with my subconscious, envisioning the action and hearing the dialogue in my mind and recording it on the page.

Once those things are set in actual words, they become “sticky” and hard for me to change them. Of course, I do edit the draft: fix a word here and there, unscramble the thoughts in a paragraph, add a helpful line of dialogue or description—that’s just neatening up the text. But it’s difficult—sometimes next to impossible—for me to decide that what is set in the scene did not happen and that something else should have or must have happened instead. Once a thing is real in my mind, it is hard for me to decide that it is unreal. To do that, I have to move away from the story for a while, refresh my head with other things, and then sit down to a new understanding, all of which takes time. The old neuronal pathway has to decay a bit before a new one can replace it.2

This organic approach, and the steps I have to follow if I make a serious mistake in production writing, is why it takes me a year or more—sometimes decades—to conceive and develop a story, but usually only six to nine months to produce an actual manuscript.

And if, in the meantime, I seem suddenly to go blank and then reach for my pen and notebook, or any scrap of paper, it means I am silently communing with my imaginary friends.

1. And sometimes I suddenly realize that two book ideas must come together, that one complements the other, providing the story line for a different character or creating a setting that will work well with another book idea. Again, none of this is under my conscious control; things just bubble up from my subconscious.

2. I have never been able to follow the practice some writers suggest, of just throwing down on paper whatever is crossing your mind and hoping to correct it later in the editing process. If I don’t know what I’m going to write, if the story hasn’t “set” in my subconscious mind, then my production draft is usually nonproductive. I can spend paragraphs describing every leaf on a tree and every lamppost along the path, spinning my wheels in words looking for the story. And who can rescue that mush and push it into a story with a bit of clever editing?

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Philosopher Kings and Other Fairytales

Puppet master

You realize, of course, that Plato was a fool—at least as far as his views in The Republic go. So were Thomas More with his Utopia and Karl Marx with whatever he called his Shangri-La, end-of-history, fairytale collective. All such manufactured visions of “ideal” states are actually repressive, manipulative pseudo-cultures that no sane human being would want to live in.

All of them require human beings to act in unnatural ways, suppressing their own interests and desires for the good of the collective. Plato wanted people to be satisfied with the shadow play that their betters cast for them in firelight on the cave wall, and to enjoy no other music than martial tunes to which they could be regimented and marched off to war. Thomas More wanted the countryside divided into counties of equal size, population, and capability, and for people to move around like chess pieces to fulfill the needs of these precincts. Karl Marx thought people would work just as hard in the interests of everyone around them as for themselves and their families and forego their own thoughts and requirements for the good of the whole.

In other words, they thought people were actually little puppets or meat robots with diminutive souls who could be sold on a grand vision—Plato’s, More’s, or Marx’s own—and stay bought and obey forever and ever.

But real human beings aren’t robots, and they won’t be regimented. Each one has needs, dreams, and desires, which may be dulled by societal teachings but not entirely squelched. Each one is born with a perceptive brain and free agency. Human beings will react to ideals about “order” and “community” in terms of their own security and expectations of loss and opportunity. But they won’t care for grand visions that don’t include themselves in some central role, like Christianity’s view of the human soul amid the chaos of the natural world. They care nothing for the design of a society as it might be viewed from outside, by some alien or godlike intelligence.

And people are biologically predisposed to care about their own families: father, mother, sister, brother, wife or husband, sons, and daughters. They have also evolved over maybe two to five million years of hominid development to trust the people they know directly: family, tribe, kinship relations, neighbors, villagers, and other county residents. They care less and less about other humans and their issues the farther away from them these people might live and work, both geographically and temporally, both in terms of personal need and psychological impact. They will share, give to, and cooperate with people they know—their families, neighbors, the town council, and various tradespeople—but they won’t give trust, faith, and allegiance to just anyone, especially those people who are over the horizon, out of sight, and out of mind.

This speaks poorly for any social design that relies too heavily on national, cultural, or racial identity over immediate and personally experienced relationships.

As for Plato’s suggestion about the proper kind of ruler, philosophers don’t want the job of king. Or at least, they won’t fight for it the way Edward IV of England and Margaret of Anjou did during the Wars of the Roses. And saintly, other-directed kings like Margaret’s husband Henry VI generally get ignored or smothered in their beds. Philosopher kings who will come down from their ivory towers and actually do the work of deciding and ruling—and do that job well—are unicorns. You might as well ask that the state be put in the hands of fairy godmothers.

Yes, you may occasionally find in government people with a true desire to serve others and preserve and protect the common good. After all, most people want to do a good job in whatever role they find themselves, and most human beings can be persuaded to adopt the rules and values of any organization they have willingly joined—sometimes even those they have unwillingly been forced into (see “Stockholm syndrome”). Sometimes also, you get “the best and the brightest” to serve in government, but that fortunate outcome always depends on other opportunities in the society at large.

Too often, though, government and the promise of making rules and setting values for other people attracts those with antisocial attitudes, the power hungry, and sometimes the psychotic. Then the least you might fear is the apparatchik, who sees an opportunity to obtain an easy living without too much responsibility, other than appeasing those higher up in the power chain. The more difficult result would be those who want to get paid both in a large salary—supposedly commensurate with the responsibility of their position—and in the psychological pleasure of telling others what to do, but often with the anonymity to duck responsibility for the results of their decisions. And the worst case would be the kind of sociopathic criminal who sees no deterrent to looting the treasury and retiring into a comfortable exile.

Planned societies and wishful thinking are, for me, not the sign of great intelligence but a streak of creativity divorced from personal observation of the real world.

Sunday, February 27, 2022

War Then and Now

War devastation

An article in the Wall Street Journal (behind a paywall, unfortunately) last week at the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine noted the number of U.S. and European companies with stakes in or economic ties to Russian companies and suppliers, and how the war was making them scramble. And, of course, most of Europe depends on Russian natural gas that flows in pipelines running through Ukraine—or might have flowed through the Nord Stream 2, except that Germany on the eve of the invasion declined to certify that new pipeline.

My point is that the world is a lot more connected place these days—economically, financially, informationally, and in every other relational dimension I can think of—than it was the last time we had anything like a world war. And whatever you can say about the ties between Europe and Russia goes maybe double or triple about economic ties between the U.S. and China, and exponentially deeper and wider for any political disagreement among the various U.S. states themselves.

War just isn’t practical—maybe not even feasible—between two major powers anymore. Sure, we can have “brushfire wars” in places like Afghanistan or Iraq or Syria, certain parts of Asia and Africa, or South America. Those are, frankly, places of former colonial dependency that may still supply oil or some cash crop to world trade but are not vital trade centers themselves. I’m not saying these places don’t matter but, let’s be honest, they can have a meltdown and engage in a civil war, with one or more superpowers backing and rooting for one side or the other, without inconveniencing anyone outside their borders.

But let a place like Russia start a war that interrupts the flow of energy, and people take notice. Let a place like China fall down on its trade agreements with the rest of Asia and the world for some political reason—or attack the semiconductor foundries of Taiwan—and a lot of people lose their jobs in those other parts of the world. Many Chinese also go out of work and maybe even starve.

And let’s talk about the gorilla in the room, political unrest leading to blows in the U.S. Not just summer riots, gunfire, and “revolution” in places like Minneapolis, Seattle, and Portland, but formal, legal, legislative votes to consider separation and partition. Then you’re talking actual civil war, like the unpleasant affair from 1861 to 1865, with self-proclaimed governments, opposing armies, invasions, battles, shifting personal allegiances, civilian deaths, and so on, horribly.1

Or, instead of a state-against-state conflict, the political tensions that now exist might erupt like the Spanish Civil War: neighborhood against neighborhood, urban versus rural communities, or clublike affiliations fighting each other, like the supporters of different soccer teams battling in the streets, except with guns and improvised explosive devices.

That sort of strife might almost be possible—if, unlike the recent urban riots and “revolutions,” a true opposition to the independent rioters were to emerge and engage them on equal footing. Not just a handful of opportunists ready to wage battle for the fun of it, but a real and devoted uprising with plan of attack and defense. But such a scenario would only be possible if the state or federal government stayed out of it, watched, wrung its hands, and pretended nothing real was happening—like the federal government and the states of Minnesota, Washington, and Oregon during the recent urban unpleasantness.

That sort of war without the supervision of competent adults can go on for years. See again Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, or certain parts of the rest of the world. But a declared and actively pursued war between coalitions of U.S. states on the model of the first Civil War? No, not now, and not in the future.

And why do I believe this? Because, like the other major, developed countries in the world—those that join and run the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, the United Nations Security Council, and other organized bodies—the various states in this country are too interconnected to ever go to war with each other.

Since the 1860s, we have built networks of information, banking, interstate commerce and communications, webs of electrical transmission, oil and gas pipelines, highways, corporate ownership and franchises across the nation, and other links that cannot be easily severed. We bank with companies headquartered thousands of miles away in other states and trade stocks and bonds at exchanges in New York and around the world. Try to break up a national bank like Wells Fargo or Bank of America or arrange communications so that it can trade across quasi-national boundaries between warring states—that’s a whole lot of disruption, negotiation, and work. Try to maintain cell phone and internet services across such lines. Try to operate something as complicated as a gas pipeline, with rights of way and pumping stations to maintain pressures and temperatures, across a hostile, quasi-national border. Sure, all of this can take place internationally when there are trade agreements, treaties, and good will among partners. But once a war shuts the border and armies start marching? Once bombs are falling and people are routed from their homes? Oh, no!

About the only thing that crossed the borders between North and South in the years before the first Civil War were railroads. And most of them were small, entrepreneurial affairs that linked one part of a state with another, one town with the next. Organized interstate commerce, railroads and telegraph lines covering whole regions and extending out to the West Coast, didn’t really get under way until after that war was ended.

Consider communications. The Nazis in Germany and the Soviets in Russia could maintain their dominance exclusively through propaganda. Their governments controlled or owned the newspapers and radio stations. Germans in the 1930s could buy only radios with limited range, so they could not receive broadcasts from outside the country. Russia had two newspapers, Pravda and Izvestia. In either country, any independent form of mass communication—even printing and handing out leaflets—was treated as a crime. Today, the internet passes information like candy. Anyone with a computer or cell phone has access to multiple news sources and reference libraries. The national media can bewail “misinformation,” but they no longer have an exclusive voice. The Chinese can try to censor the internet at their borders, but who knows how effective that tactic really is? Technology has changed the nature of information, for good or ill.

Consider food distribution. Today, we eat fruits, vegetables, and meat grown on other continents. We eat fruits and nuts from California, beef from Texas, and chicken from all over, sent across the nation by rail and truck under refrigeration. We eat seafood caught in the Gulf or the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and sent inland while still fresh. Our processed foods, like canned goods, breakfast cereals, potato chips, and even packaged breads, come from plants that may be a thousand miles away across state lines. You close those borders in a war, and all of that food diversity disappears. Then you really have to depend on “locally grown” and “artisanal” fare from communal gardens—and may whatever spirit you pray to help you then!

War these days is a lot more complicated. We all have good reason to join hands across country borders and state lines, to live and work under global and national agreements. The alternative is not just unpleasantness but more likely issues of life and death.

1. This scenario presumes a strong president in the former national government who will fight to maintain the union and not simply let the seceding states go their own way. Lincoln fought in 1861. Stephen Douglas probably would have waved goodbye.

Sunday, February 6, 2022

Ultimate Reality

Spiral galaxy

I was reading an article in the February 2022 issue of Scientific American titled “The Origins of Space and Time” by Adam Becker.1 The article suggests that space and time, which we take to be fundamental properties of the universe, might in fact be emergent properties created by something deeper that we don’t quite understand.2

Becker examines recent attempts by physicists to reconcile the big world of general relativity, where space and time (or spacetime) are shaped by gravity—and where we humans happen to live—and the tiny world of quantum mechanics, where gravity seems to be nonexistent or have no apparent function. Physicists have long spoken of a theory of “quantum gravity” that would reconcile the two realms. In the article, Becker examines several such attempts.

One attempt that’s been around for a while is string theory, which is a purely mathematical conjecture, positing every subatomic particle as being a tiny loop of string that exists in several dimensions and vibrates continuously. Another attempt combines a special interpretation of the spacetime from general relativity called “anti–de Sitter space” (AdS) with a variation of quantum theory called “conformal field theory” (CFT) to explore how subatomic particles become entangled in a relationship that can exist over vast distances. The suggestion is that these entanglements might knit together the reality that we perceive as space and time. A third attempt cites a theory, again from quantum mechanics, called “loop quantum gravity” that views space and time as tiny, discrete bits that are bound by one- and two-dimensional connections that create a “spin foam,” and this spin foam creates for us the illusion of space and time being continuous.

Again, I don’t have the physics training or the mathematics understanding to make much of these theories, and Becker’s article does not supply the supporting equations. Still, to me, these theories all seem to be conjectures for which the creators can write equations that balance out and don’t violate any known principles, but otherwise they are just fanciful imaginings.3

But one part of the article that did strike me intuitively was the question of how spacetime could be emergent in the first place, quoted from Eleanor Knox, a philosopher of science at King’s College London. She noted that we humans are land animals, and our direct ancestors developed on the African savannah. There we became attuned to the vast distances that we could see and the threats of predators and opportunities for prey, represented by physical beings crossing that landscape. Everywhere we looked on Earth and out into the distances beyond the sky we saw physical objects moving through space and time. No wonder then that we thought these things, the space they filled, and the time that passed while they had that location and held that form, were the basis of ultimate reality.

As I tried to absorb the article’s theories, especially after the mental dislocation of Knox’s suggestion, it occurred to me that if space and time and their relationship to gravity emerge from any underlying, ultimate principle, that reality is energy. Energy in different forms is the root cause of and the motivation for everything we see and experience.

Our chemistry and physics break down everything we can see and touch into molecules, which are made up of atoms. Atoms are divisible into complex particles called “hadrons”—the protons and neutrons in the nucleus—that are made up of various combinations of supposedly indivisible, or “elementary,” particles called “quarks.” These quarks come in six types or “flavors” in what quantum mechanics calls the “Standard Model.” Other elementary particles are “leptons,” which include the electron that orbits the atomic nucleus and various kinds of neutrino that, among other things, can distinguish a proton from a neutron. There are also elementary particles called “bosons” that carry force, such as the photon that rides a wave which, at different frequencies, is responsible for everything from radio and television signals to heat and light to x-rays and gamma rays.

From one point of view, all of these particles are real things with known qualities like their spin and quantities like their mass. For example, sometimes a photon—which has no measurable mass—acts like a solid particle in some experiments. From another point of view, every one of these particles can, when brought together with sufficient force in a particle accelerator, disappear into a cloud of pure energy that only subsequently resolves itself into new and different particles. And sometimes, in some experiments, a photon acts just like a wave with no physical, thing-like presence at all.

So what is matter, really? Under the closest scrutiny, the most thinly sliced reality, matter is made up of frozen bits of energy that temporarily have a physical identity and a locatable spatiotemporal address. But jostle it hard enough, and it evaporates into a flare of energy. Einstein understood this with his equation e=mc2, or “energy equals mass times the speed of light squared.”

You can test this for yourself. Are you a thing or a form of energy? As a thing, I am a few pounds of common chemicals knit together into complex molecules that interact through certain electromagnetic attractions, all while suspended in a hundred or two hundred pounds of water. My thingness is interesting to a biologist, perhaps, but its thingy nature doesn’t change much from the time two hours before I die, when I am alive, to two hours after the event, when I am cold and dead. On the other hand, as a process, I am very active at the one point and inert or nonexistent at the other. As a thing, my chemical makeup changes daily. My components and physical form change visibly from one year or decade to the next. But the characteristic that makes me a vital, continuous identity—the energy represented by all my assembled and interacting chemical-and-metabolic, neuronal-and-mental processes, and the mind and memories that result from them—is very real. I have a temporary physical identity and a locatable spatiotemporal address, but at heart I am a stream of energy.

Consider the Big Bang.4 From the point of view in which space and time are the ultimate reality, the event started with a compressed state of matter, with all of the atoms now composing our visible universe crowded into a single, compact mass. And that mass suddenly destabilized and dispersed into previously existing and waiting space. But from the point of view with energy as the fundamental reality, this was an outpouring of energy that eventually condensed, organized itself into localized particles, and defined space and time as a result.

Consider black holes. From one point of view, they are concentrations of mass into a space so small that their gravity overwhelms local conditions of time and space. From the other, they are concentrations of energy—for gravity is clearly a form of energy, or else why do the quantum physicists keep trying to encumber it with a so-far-undetected force particle, the graviton? The amount of energy contained in the thing we call a “black hole” annihilates both space and time and, along with them, matter itself.

Consider that kinetic energy and inertia can increase the apparent mass of any object. This is why a bump with a four-pound fist, or a four-thousand-pound automobile, is different when the object is traveling at two miles an hour from when it is traveling sixty miles an hour. The thing itself has not changed, but its energy certainly has.

In our real and observable world, distance is only meaningful in terms of the energy needed to travel from one point to the next, and time is only meaningful in terms of the energy needed to power the events, actions, or processes by which it is counted. These things appear to be separately meaningful to our brains in our perceived reality as land-based hominids having to walk across the savannah or throw a stone or spear to bring down prey for our next meal. But the underlying reality is the energy involved.

All of this raises a philosophical or existential question. What is a painting? What is any work of art, for that matter? Is the painting “really”—that is, its ultimate reality—defined by the canvas that supports the paint? Is it the pigments in their base of oil or acrylic, which reflect certain wavelengths of visible light and not others to the observer’s retina? Is it energy that applied those materials in their lines and sweeps across the canvas? Or is the painting “really” the artist’s intention that selected those particular pigments and directed the brush in applying them? Without that energy of selection and application, the painting has no underlying reality, and the canvas has no meaningful dimension. Without the sculptor’s application of hammer and chisel, the marble has no final shape. Without the potter’s intention expressed through her fingers and the pressure they exert, the clay is just a formless lump.

Energy in both its active and temporarily frozen forms defines space and time. Energy is the ultimate reality and underlying fundamental of the world we see around us. It’s not the savannah, and not the rock or spear, but the way energy shapes their relationship that makes them important in our human perception.

1. Unfortunately, the actual text of Becker’s article is behind a paywall. He is also the author of the book What Is Real?: The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics, in which he analyzes the question, first raised by some of the originators of quantum mechanics themselves, of whether their theories represent anything that exists in the real world itself or are just an imaginative system supported by their mathematics.

2. For some background on my interest in this question, see my two blogs Three Things We Don’t Know About Physics (I) from December 30, 2012, and (II) from January 6, 2013. My point there is that we simply do not understand or have a real definition of the effects we see as gravity, space, and time. I freely admit that I am not trained in physics, have an inadequate background in mathematics to understand most of the physicists’ equations, and just stand here questioning. But I also think—like Becker in the article—that we’re missing something big.

3. To understand the depths of my mathematical ignorance, see the blogs from 2010, Fun With Numbers (I) on September 19 and (II) from September 26, as well as Fun With Negative Numbers from November 3, 2013.

4. I am always cautious when citing the Big Bang. It strikes me as something we haven’t fully examined. We discovered at one point in time—when we started observing the universe with sophisticated telescopes operating at various wavelengths—that it was expanding. We could think of no reason for this expansion, or what might stop it, or how it might change over a time span longer than humanity’s brief life on Earth. And so we “ran the film backwards” to a computed point in time and space when everything we could see in the cosmos was all bound into an infinitely small, infinitely dense particle. There are aspects to the process of expansion from there—like the necessary period of “inflation,” which brings the universe to its currently observed size by having the expansion briefly exceed the speed of light—that make no sense to a rational person. But it all gives the universe a starting point, a creation story, and human beings appear to need creation stories.

Sunday, January 30, 2022

Anger is a Weakness

Angry businessman

On the business channel, CNBC, I recently saw an advertisement for an on-call flight service using private jets. It featured a frustrated businessman whose own jet had broken down. He was stamping his feet and shouting that he would be late for his “important business meeting.” Later, on having arrived at his destination, he was screaming for someone to tell him where all the taxis were. The point was that, if he had only signed up with the advertised service, he would always have a perfectly functioning plane at his disposal and a chauffeured vehicle waiting when he arrived.1

The reason I mention this is that, despite having his own private airplane and an important meeting to go to, this sample businessman came off as a ranting fool. His portrayal was presented as an object of fun, rather than an example of a serious business problem. After all, what is funnier than a red-faced man giving in to his anger? Or a woman with her face screwed up giving vent to her unhappiness? These are stock characters from the human comedy: the fool and the shrew, Punch and Judy.

The person who gets excessively, visibly angry or upset is a person out of control. Their emotions have gotten the best of them, temporarily overriding their reasoning mind and, to use a phrase from another culture, denying their “Buddha nature”—that is, their real, underlying sense of self. Worse, anger and upset are reactions, letting events and insults control you instead of controlling your own causal, social, and emotional environment.

On the flip side, what is more inspiring or calming than a person who can nod and smile and even laugh at adversity? These are the gestures and the disposition of someone in control of their surroundings and sure of themselves. The smile and laugh suggest that the person was wise enough to see adversity coming and to probably have a plan for dealing with it.2

Anger also makes you foolish. When taken to extremes, it can make you hasty and careless. You can overlook the lessons you’ve learned in the past, rush into action you’re not ready to take, and leap at conclusions about which you have not thought or deeply considered. Then you will have more to be angry about—anger at the situation, and angry with yourself for being a fool. Anger compounds weakness and destabilizes your life and your relationships.

The confident man or woman remains in control of emotions. They reserve anger for the true evil that should be righteously opposed, then use it as deep motivation in planning and executing right action. They love, but only when it is appropriate and may confidently be expected to be returned. They laugh, but only when the incongruity of the situation evokes shock and merriment, and then never hysterically. They don’t laugh when the shock and loss happen to another, because then the hurt is real and not at all funny.

We all admire a measured confidence. Not the confidence of the fool who has never been tested and knows no better, because that is truly sad. But the confidence of the person who understands life, expects it to both buoy them up and weigh them down, and who has a plan for either eventuality. When I was growing up, we called such a person “cool.”

Cool is not cold and uncaring. But it is the lack of heat, of visible anger or upset. The cool person moves through life dealing with crises, prepared with skills and reflexes that are appropriate to their situation, with knowledge and perspective that makes shock and surprise more difficult, that shields their inner nature from feeling wrong-footed and foolish.

In my day, this was the coolness of the secret agent, the undercover operative, the James Bond or Derek Flint. This was the person who functioned according to the words of General James Mattis: “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.” Maybe our admiration for such a person—someone who was living an intentional lie, sometimes with criminal accoutrements and intent—was misplaced. But we did aspire to the operative’s capability and general air of unflappability.

Giving in to anger is a weakness. It is a sign of the unprepared mind. It is small-minded and, to those of us watching from outside the situation, inherently funny. Moreover, it is physically and psychologically dangerous.

1. The ad never mentioned how much all this would cost, but I’m betting that I and my modest travel needs are not the target market. A fleeting glimpse of a screen shot suggested five figures, which is way too expensive for me.

2. Even if you don’t have the foresight to anticipate and plan for this particular adversity, the superior mind always expects some measure of trouble from some dimension. People of such a mind always have a backup plan, a work-around, an if-this-then-that on hand. They are seldom caught out by events. And they don’t get angry when events catch up with them.