Saturday, May 30, 2020

Shuddering Before the Beautiful

"In my entire scientific life, extending over forty-five years, the most shattering experience has been the realization that an exact solution of Einstein's equations of general relativity, discovered by the New Zealand mathematician, Roy Kerr, provides the absolutely exact representation of untold numbers of massive black holes that populate the universe. This shuddering before the beautiful, this incredible fact that a discovery motivated by a search after the beautiful in mathematics should find its exact replica in Nature, persuades me to say that beauty is that to which the human mind responds at its deepest and most profound."

S. Chandrasekhar  (1910 - 1995)

Friday, May 29, 2020

Pure Spirit

"So shall we come to look at the world with new eyes. It shall answer the endless inquiry of the intellect—What is truth? and of the affections—What is good? by yielding itself passive to the educated Will. Then shall come to pass what my poet said; 'Nature is not fixed but fluid. Spirit alters, moulds, makes it. The immobility or bruteness of nature, is the absence of spirit; to pure spirit, it is fluid, it is volatile, it is obedient. Every spirit builds itself a house; and beyond its house a world; and beyond its world, a heaven. Know then, that the world exists for you.' For you is the phenomenon perfect. What we are, that only can we see."

- Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 - 1882)

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Creative Consciousness

"I believe that we need to learn from natural process about how to be appropriately creative ourselves, meaning that our activities should be appropriate to whatever is the context within which we are acting. This of course applies to everything we do, not just to art or architecture. The process of bringing something into being is what we and the rest of nature are engaged in all the time, but we have a tendency to assume that what emerges from our looking or feeling or doing was there to begin with and we just became aware of it. However just as quarks and mesons, organisms and galaxies are dynamically generated continuously, from we know not what, to become the natural kinds that we call in the generic language of dynamics, attractors, so we and the world we inhabit are generated continuously. The individual properties of these natural kinds reflect the context in which they arise by their particularities. It is this type of process that I believe we need to understand by participating in it, not just by looking at it.
The latest problem to appear clearly on the scientific agenda is how consciousness (and feeling) could emerge in a cosmos that is made up of totally inert, insentient components. Complexity theory always requires that there be some precursor of whatever property is observed to emerge in a system, such as superconductivity or the properties of water or the cooperative behavior of bees in a hive. The dilemma now is to account for the evolutionary emergence of feeling from a system that has no qualitative precursor of such a property. This would be a scientific miracle, and scientists don’t like miracles. So some other solution needs to be found. My own preference, to save the unity of scientific understanding, is to adopt some position like that of Whitehead or Bergson, so that consciousness and feelings are grounded in reality and not some ghostly epiphenomena that are not quite real. However, this will be very firmly resisted by the majority of scientists, and for perfectly good reasons. You do not lightly abandon a position that has been so phenomenally successful at explaining so much of nature. I don’t intend to abandon it either, but I believe that science has to be extended in some way to accommodate the reality of qualities."

- Brian Goodwin (1931 - 2009)

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

The Behavior of Things

"Electrons, when they were first discovered, behaved exactly like particles or bullets, very simply. Further research showed, from electron diffraction experiments for example, that they behaved like waves. As time went on there was a growing confusion about how these things really behaved ---- waves or particles, particles or waves? Everything looked like both.

This growing confusion was resolved in 1925 or 1926 with the advent of the correct equations for quantum mechanics. Now we know how the electrons and light behave. But what can I call it? If I say they behave like particles I give the wrong impression; also if I say they behave like waves. They behave in their own inimitable way, which technically could be called a quantum mechanical way. They behave in a way that is like nothing that you have seen before. Your experience with things that you have seen before is incomplete. The behavior of things on a very tiny scale is simply different. An atom does not behave like a weight hanging on a spring and oscillating. Nor does it behave like a miniature representation of the solar system with little planets going around in orbits. Nor does it appear to be somewhat like a cloud or fog of some sort surrounding the nucleus. It behaves like nothing you have seen before.

There is one simplification at least. Electrons behave in this respect in exactly the same way as photons; they are both screwy, but in exactly in the same way….

The difficulty really is psychological and exists in the perpetual torment that results from your saying to yourself, "But how can it be like that?" which is a reflection of uncontrolled but utterly vain desire to see it in terms of something familiar. I will not describe it in terms of an analogy with something familiar; I will simply describe it. There was a time when the newspapers said that only twelve men understood the theory of relativity. I do not believe there ever was such a time. There might have been a time when only one man did, because he was the only guy who caught on, before he wrote his paper. But after people read the paper a lot of people understood the theory of relativity in some way or other, certainly more than twelve. On the other hand, I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics. So do not take the lecture too seriously, feeling that you really have to understand in terms of some model what I am going to describe, but just relax and enjoy it. I am going to tell you what nature behaves like. If you will simply admit that maybe she does behave like this, you will find her a delightful, entrancing thing. Do not keep saying to yourself, if you can possible avoid it, "But how can it be like that?" because you will get 'down the drain', into a blind alley from which nobody has escaped. Nobody knows how it can be like that."

Richard Feynman (1918 - 1988)

Monday, May 25, 2020

Humboldtian Threads

"Humboldt revolutionized the way we see the natural world. He found connections everywhere. Nothing, not even the tiniest organism, was looked at on its own. “In this great chain of causes and effects,” Humboldt said, “no single fact can be considered in isolation.” With this insight, he invented the web of life, the concept of nature as we know it today. When nature is perceived as a web, its vulnerability also becomes obvious. Everything hangs together. If one thread is pulled, the whole tapestry may unravel."

"Mere communion with nature, mere contact with the free air, exercise a soothing yet comforting and strengthening influence on the wearied mind, calm the storm of passion, and soften the heart when shaken by sorrow to its inmost depths."

Alexander von Humboldt (1769 - 1859)

Postscript: If there is any solace to be found during this difficult time, it is - as Humboldt reminds us - but a mindful nature-walk away. This montage reveals some of the (usually invisible, if not simply ignored) "Humboldtian threads" that quietly weave their way through the small neighborhood park in which my younger son and I now regularly take our late-day rejuvenating saunters

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Dynamic Unity

"What Goethe means by the Urpflanze is the dynamic unity of the coming-into-being of all plants as the self-differencing of One plant, which in therefore intensively multiple but appears to us extensively as all the many different plants. What this means is that each plant is the Urpflanze being one possible mode of itself - the number of possibilities is indeterminate. Hence, paradoxically, it is everywhere visible and nowhere visible - although once we begin to think dynamically, this is no paradox at all. Instead of being separate from the many particular plants that we see, i.e., as 'the one over many', Goethe's Urpflanze is One which comes into concrete manifestation simultaneously with the many - with which it is identical because the many are now the self-differences of One. This is very different indeed from the two-world theory which separates the One from the many. There is no such dualism in Goethe's thinking, for which in his own words: 'The universal and the particular coincide: the particular is the universal, appearing under different conditions.'"

- Henri Bortoft (1938 - 2012)

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Soul and Landscape

"It is one of the perils of our so-called civilized age that we do not yet acknowledge enough, or cherish enough, this connection between soul and landscape - between our own best possibilities, and the view from our own windows. We need the world as much as it needs us, and we need it in privacy, intimacy, and surety. We need the field from which the lark rises - bird that is more than itself, that is the voice of the universe: vigorous, godly job. Without the physical world such hope it: hacked off. Is: dried up. Without wilderness no fish could leap and flash, no deer could bound soft as eternal waters over the field; no bird could open its wings and become buoyant, adventurous, valorous beyond even the plan of nature. Nor could we."

- Mary Oliver (1935 - 2019)