An uplifting news item, poem, thought or quotation each day.
Archive of past entries

12 February 2006

Here’s my candidate for the deepest scientific mystery of all time.  It’s a question that any one of us can ask, but which the greatest minds of physics have not been able to answer.

What is the provenance of time’s arrow? or, Why is the relationship of this moment to the future qualitatively different from its relation to the past?

In our experience, we can remember the past, but we do not know what the future will hold.  And it is not just our subjective human experience that is asymmetric:  For example, we observe that things mix, but they never un-mix.  We see a fire burn, turning a log into carbon dioxide and water vapor, while warming the living room; but we never see carbon dioxide and water vapor come together to make a log, as the room gets a little cooler.

There is the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which applies to all such examples and provides a quantitative measure of something about the natural world that is always increasing, never decreasing (entropy).

But it is fair to ask where the Second Law comes from.  It is not a fundamental law, but a derived law.  In fact, it is derived from interactions that are all time-symmetric.   Every collision, every orbit, every exchange between two particles is described by physical laws that treat past and future identically.   If you watch a movie of Humpty Dumpty falling from his perch and breaking into a thousand pieces, you have no trouble telling whether the movie is running forward or backward.  But if you watched a movie of any small set of Humpty Dumpty’s atoms during this event, you would see them bouncing around in a way that could happen in a backward direction just as easily as forward.

All of the ‘microscopic laws’ of physics treat time symmetrically.   There is no distinction between future and past.  (This is as true in quantum as in classical physics.)  The macroscopic behaviors are supposed to be mere collections of many microscopic behaviors, and yet they make obvious distinctions between future and past.

Does all of our universe have the same arrow of time?   What would we experience if we came across a region where time is flowing the other way?  

If the Big Bang expansion of the universe were to reach a point where gravity pulled it back, and we began contracting toward a Big Crunch, would we still perceive time going the same way, and dread our future annihilation; or would we then be experiencing the future the way we now experience the past, and we’d call it the Big Bang?  (This was a claim by Stephen Hawking, which he later renounced.)

These are open scientific questions, which you have as good a chance of understanding as anyone else in the world.   Here are some thoughts that others have had on the subject:

New Scientist article 
Book review from Nature 
Thermodynamic Asymmetry in Time, philosophy article 
About Time, Book by Paul Davies

11 February 2006

The world's first miracle drug for making people live longer is long on the market, and no one is making a fortune on it.  In very low daily doses, aspirin damps the body's inflammatory attack on itself, significantly forestalling heart disease, strokes, arthritis, dementia, and some forms of cancer.  (Higher doses do no better.)

A research article last week suggested what the second might be.  Worms, insects, and fish fed the red wine extract resveratrol experience a dramatically extended healthy life span - living for up to 60% longer, and with all diseases of old age delayed.  Experiments with mice are under way.  Results summarized here.

Resveratrol is an organic compound naturally present in grapes--and particularly enriched in red wine--and was previously shown to prolong lifespan in non-vertebrate model organisms such as yeast, the worm C. elegans, and the fruit fly Drosophila. However, until now, life-long pharmacological trials were performed in the worm or fly model organisms because of their very small size, very short natural lifespan, and affordable cultivation costs... 

Recently, a small fish species with a captive lifespan of only three months was described by Cellerino and colleagues. In the new work, the researchers used this short-lived fish to test the effects of resveratrol on aging-related physiological decay. The researchers added resveratrol to daily fish food and found that this treatment increased longevity and also retarded the onset of aging-related decays in memory and muscular performance.

Resveratrol appears to be the first molecule to consistently cause life extension across very different animal groups such as worms, insects, and fish, and it could become the starting molecule for the design drugs for the prevention of human aging-related diseases. 

Science News article
Research article from Current Biology

10 February 2006

Our aged Limbs we'll bask in Phoebus Rays,
And live this Day devoted to our Ease.
Early to Day we'll to the Bath repair,
Nor need we now the common Censure fear:
On Festivals, it is allowed no Crime
To Bathe, and Eat, before the usual time;
But that continued, would a loathing give,
Nor could you thus a Week together live:
For, frequent Use would the Delight exclude:
Pleasure's a Toil, when constantly pursued.

~ Wm Congreve, born this day in 1670

9 February 2006

The world was full of holes, tiny apertures of meaninglessness, microscopic rifts that the mind could walk through, and once you were on the other side of those holes, you were free of yourself, free of your life, free of your death, free of everything that belonged to you. I had chanced upon one of them in my living room that night…A series of accidents had stolen my life from me and then given it back, and in the interval, in the tiny gap between those two moments, my life had become a different life.

~ Paul Auster, The Book of Illusions

8 February 2006

You must cease to be aware of yourself. You must be nothing but an ear that hears what the universe of the word is constantly saying within you. The moment you start hearing what you yourself are saying, ‘you’ must stop.

Martin Buber, born this day in 1878, was a poet/mystic who wrote in prose that was constantly seeking to transcend the written word, and create experience.  He was an intellectual who sought always to transcend reasoned argument, to reach to the reader and to bond with us, and root his communication in that bond.

If you have not already discovered I and Thou, you might set aside an afternoon to decode and ponder the first two pages.

7 February 2006

everything in the world is here, in my room,
in a great closet, named and orderly,  

and I am here too,  in front of it,
hardly able to see for the flash and the brightness –
and sometimes I am that madcap person clapping my hands and singing
and sometimes I am that quiet person down on my knees.  

~ Mary Oliver

6 February 2006

Explanation separates us from astonishment, which is the only gateway to the incomprehensible.

~ Eugene Ionesco