1 October 2006

How I Meditate, Part II

There is no virtue in the practice of meditation.  There is nothing to pat myself on the back for, and no reason to feel guilty if I skip a day or a week. There are long-term benefits for health, creativity, and productivity, but I doubt if I would be able to maintain a commitment to meditation were it not for an immediate benefit to my sense of wellbeing, and my ability to connect meaningfully to others.

I have meditated on a sporadic schedule for over 30 years, yet it never feels easy to begin.  I must extract myself from a higher-stimulus activity which feels like a nourishment to me, though perhaps it is just addictive.  I never want to meditate, though I often know enough to want what meditation has to offer. Sometimes I trick myself into beginning to sit, saying, ‘You don't have to sit very long. You can get up whenever you please.’

My writing and my scientific modeling – my sources of professional pride – these depend on ideas. While I am writing or programming, I have little ideas about the next step, but never big ideas about strategic directions, never ideas for entire new projects.  Big ideas arise like a gift from heaven while I am walking or swimming or taking a shower. Quite frequently, the big ideas that motivate and inspire my professional activity arrive while I am meditating.  This is an exquisite irony:  In meditation, the direction, to which I constantly return is to abstract myself from ideas and concepts, to experience myself from the outside, to watch but not to direct my thoughts, to become the witness.  In this context, ‘big ideas’ are a distraction, a weed in the garden of meditation.  In the larger context of my life, however, these weeds are the seedlings from which my creative output grows. 

~ Josh Mitteldorf

30 September 2006

“Security is mostly a superstition.  It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it.  Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure.  Life is a daring adventure or nothing at all.” 

Helen Keller 

29 September 2006

The laws of physics are fixed in time, even as the Universe expands and changes.  This is an assumption that underlies all that astronomers do in drawing conclusions about the past, and the history of All.  The trouble is that if you don't assume this much, then everything is open to re-interpretation.  For example, how far away are the distant quasars?  We know how far they are from the redshift of their spectra; but we only know what their un-shifted spectra should be by assuming that their atoms are just like modern-day atoms, i.e., that the laws of physics haven’t changed.

Suppose there is evidence in our observations to indicate that the laws have changed?  What would it mean to cite evidence that the laws have changed?  Some would say that the ‘game’ of physical cosmology is to interpret the observations that we have in terms of the laws that we know.  They would say that changing the ‘rules of the game’ opens a Pandora’s Box, and we can no longer claim to know anything – including the evidence we just cited that justified changing the rules.

Physicist Lee Smolin is a theorist who has devoted his career to working out the unfinished legacy of Einstein: how to combine quantum mechanics and gravity (general relativity) into a self-consistent theory.  Now he has stepped back to propose a meta-physical theory in the literal sense of the word:  Where do the laws of physics come from?  How do they change?  He draws on ideas from biological evolution to create a theory of ‘natural selection’ for physical laws.

If biological systems are selected for having more children, then perhaps universes are selected for giving rise to more baby universes.  Baby universes?  Yes, the theory is that universes are born in transitions ‘through’ black holes.  So a ‘fecund universe’ is one that produces a lot of black holes, leading to a lot of baby universes.  Smolin thinks that ours is a fecund universe.

Wikipedia article    New Scientist article

28 September 2006

“When I don't like a piece of music, I make a point of listening to it more closely.”
Florent Schmitt, born this day in 1870

Life is complicated, and there's something about French music of the 20th Century that chides us for taking it seriously.  Here are two delightful chamber movements, performed by the Czech Nonette:
A Tour of the Reeds    From a Rock Garden 

27 September 2006

Well, there is time left –
fields everywhere invite you into them.

And who will care, who will chide you if you wander away
from wherever you are, to look for your soul?

Quickly, then, get up, put on your coat, leave your desk!

To put one's foot into the door of the grass, which is 
the mystery, which is death as well as life, and
not be afraid!

To set one's foot in the door of death, and be overcome
with amazement!

~ from Have You Eve Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches, by Mary Oliver

26 September 2006

“If you aren't in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?”

~ T. S. Eliot, born this day in 1888, struggled his entire life with depression and ostracism from his own family in order to pursue his creative expression

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”

25 September 2006

In Stephen Gould’s view of evolution (punctuated equilibrium), there were several crucial leaps that life needed to take that required great luck and great numbers, rather than just the accumulation of gradual change. Examples are the advance from bacteria to much larger eukaryotic cells, and the invention of photosynthesis. For each of these there is evidence of a long stasis in the fossil record, when the entire biosphere presumably was waiting for a rare event. (The Plausiblility of Life, by Kirschner and Gerhart)

But what of the first leap – the origin of life itself?  The most primitive bacteria already harbor much of the complexity that supports the basic metabolic processes of life. (Bacteria typically have 6,000 genes – roughly a quarter of the ones that humans have – and almost all of these are thought to have analogs in higher life forms.)  Life is so much more complex than non-life that the very origin of it would seem to be the biggest evolutionary mystery of all.

There is evidence that life appeared as soon as the earth was ready to support it. The first fossil records of life are 3.8 billion years old; the earth is 4.6 years old, but the crust was molten and too hot for life for the firs 0.7 billion. Moreover, there was a shower of diverse meteorites raining onto the earth during this early phase.

To some, it all constitutes a tantalizing suggestion that earth’s life was seeded from outside; that the first primitive bacteria on earth actually originated on some earlier planet, around some earlier star. The theory requires that rocks containing these cells were hurled into space by some violent collision, and that at least some of them were in a sort of spore that could survive millions of years in space, without air, water, or sunlight.  

The hardiness of these spores and the long odds of being lost in space count against this theory.  In its favor, it allows for the fact that the origin of life required billions of years, and perhaps billions of planets, until just the right molecular events happened in just the right conditions.