10 June 2007

In Newtonian physics, an object is always somewhere. Once you’ve found it and measured its velocity and studied its environment, you can calculate as precisely as you like where it will be at any moment in the future.

In Quantum Mechanics, you can only say that there is a probability cloud that describes where the object might be. Actually, even this is a reduction: because the probability distribution is not about this one object, but about the concurrent, linked probability that this object will be here and another object (with which it has interacted or will interact) is over there. The two probabilities are linked. In fact, all probabilities are linked together, and you only get to calculate anything at all by averaging over all the other objects in the universe to give an approximate probability distribution for the one object you want to study.

Whenever you look for the object, you find it in exactly one place – not smeared out in a probability cloud.  But (according to QM), fully half of the information that you need to make a detailed prediction about the future trajectory of an object is missing. It is encoded in the deep past and the far future, in objects far removed from your target object that may have touched it once, or will touch it in the future.  Calculations that predict the future based solely on the past are impossible in principle.

The way in which Quantum physicists deal with this situation is to extract from QM that part of the theory that is causal and predictive. Experiments are carefully designed to instantiate situations that are calculable, at least as a probability distribution. Particle physicists go to great lengths to isolate their particles, just to make the calculations tractable so they’ll have a prediction with which to compare.

But the real world isn’t like this. The real world is spectacularly interactive. We like to think that we understand physics in the sense that if only we had a big enough computer we could ‘model reality’ and make predictive calculations about what is happening in the real world. This is an illusion. Almost everyone who has not studied quantum physics – scientists and philosophers most particularly – have fallen prey to this illusion. They conceive of the world as basically causal, but so complex that in practice we cannot predict what is going to happen.

The quantum mechanical reality is shockingly different from this.  Physics that obeys causal thinking is only half the story. The other half is about interactions that stretch widely over time and space, interactions that can propagate as easily backward in time as forward, interactions where our notions of cause and effect don’t apply. And yet these are real connections (as proven by J. S. Bell in 1968), and constitute fully half the quantum mechanical picture of reality.  They are not mere randomness or ‘Quantum uncertainty’.

Physics of the future will expand its conceptual framework to embrace the other half of physics. It may be that living systems are already taking advantage of these phenomena.

– Josh Mitteldorf

9 June 2007

When love beckons to you, follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you believe in him,
Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden.

For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.
Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun,
So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.

~ Kahlil Gibran, from The Prophet

8 June 2007

Even more than composition and performance, the life of Robert Schumann was about love and madness.  As a young pianist and composer, he lived in the home of his piano teacher, Friedrich Wiech.  He fell in love with Wiech’s daughter, Clara; waited patiently for Clara to come of age, and painfully as Friedrich forbade the liaison, and did all he could to poison it.  Robert and Clara rebelled, eloped, and married despite poverty and ostracism.

From desperate determination to become a virtuoso piano performer, Schumann permanently damaged his hands in trying to stretch and strengthen them.  He was forced into a career of composition.  ‘The first ten years of his compositions are a veritable diary of his courtship of Clara Wieck’...and much of his best composition thereafter was for piano, inspired and improved by Clara’s collaboration.

Later in life, Schumann suffered increasing emotional instability.  ‘After throwing himself into the Rhine in 1854, Robert’s condition necessitated his being institutionalized. His alternating periods of intense creativity with depression have led to speculations of bipolar disorder.’

Robert Schumann was born this day in 1810. 
listen to variations from Sonata #2 for Violin and Piano, lovingly performed by Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich.

7 June 2007

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell;
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die. 

~ John Donne, 1617

Gary Schwartz presents scientific evidence for life after death
Ian Stevenson collected evidence for reincarnation

6 June 2007

Afflictive emotions - our jealousy, anger, hatred, fear - can be put to an end. When you realize that these emotions are only temporary, that they always pass on like clouds in the sky, you also realize they can ultimately be abandoned.”

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, was born this day in 1935.  

Each Dalai Lama is not biologically related to his predecessors, but is located by a team of monks seeking a reincarnation of their previous master. 

5 June 2007

Science gets it right.  Most of the time.  Eventually.  If you allow time for open debate and don’t kill the messenger.  

But any given published scientific finding has a high probability of being wrong.

How can that be?  All those smart people, vetted by prestigious institutions, peer-reviewed and professionally edited.

Why Most Published Research Findings are False.  This article focuses on the field of medicine, where the problem is particularly egregious.  The authors talk about the effect of bias, reviewers favoring their friends, who in turn will review their own papers next month.  Too much pressure to publish, created by high-stakes grant decisions.  Not enough distance between the financial interests and the researchers.

All this is true.  But I prefer to think that the root of the problem is a failure of imagination.  These ‘false findings’ that form the majority of scientific research are seldom revolutionary breakthroughs that turn out to be a flash in the pan.  In fact, the problem is just the opposite: it is the results that are conservative, expected extensions of present knowledge that are most suspect.  

The world is simply more complex and surprising than we are prepared to acknowledge, at least until we are hit over the head with reality on multiple occasions.  

4 June 2007

“I have never understood how anyone could have the slightest trouble blending religious awe with a full comprehension of the workings of life’s creation.”

Barbara Kingsolver