He doesn’t have a brain, but he’s learned to compensate

Is it possible to know where you've been when you don't have a brain? Depending on your definition of "know," the answer may be yes. Researchers have shown that the slime mold, an organism without anything that resembles a nervous system (or, for that matter, individual cells), is capable of impressive feats of navigation. It can even link food sources in optimally spaced networks. Now, researchers have shown it's capable of filling its environment with indications of where it has already searched for food, allowing it to "remember" its past efforts and focus its attention on routes it hasn't explored. The authors make a comparison to the pheromone trails used by ants. No individual ants have to remember where a food source is. Instead, by laying down a trail of scent molecules, workers that find food leave a trail in the environment the ants can collectively use.

Article by John Timmer at Ars Technica

11 October 2012

Character of a Happy Life

HOW happy is he born and taught
That serveth not another's will;
Whose armour is his honest thought
And simple truth his utmost skill;

Whose passions not his masters are;
Whose soul is still prepared for death,
Not tied unto the world with care
Of public fame, or private breath;

Who envies none that chance doth raise,
Or vice; who never understood
How deepest wounds are given by praise,
Nor rules of state, but rules of good;

Who hath his life from rumours freed,
Whose conscience is his strong retreat;
Whose state can neither flatterers feed
Nor ruin make accusers great;

Who God doth late and early pray
More of His grace than gifts to lend;
And entertains the harmless day
With a well-chosen book or friend;

—This man is freed from servile bands
Of hope to rise, or fear to fall;
Lord of himself, though not of lands;
And having nothing, yet hath all.

Henry Wotton

12 October 2012

Jean Beauduin

Life does not accommodate you; it shatters you. Every seed destroys its container, or else there would be no fruition.

– Florida Scott Maxwell

13 October 2012

A scientist’s credo

The world is chock full of crazy ideas.  A few of them can be cracked open to reveal revolutionary new truths, but most of them are sterile.  We can’t know in advance which ones will reward our patient investigation and analysis.  So it is vitally important that we not limit our attention to the known and solid and expected.  And it is almost as important that we culture that judgment that will permit us to avoid spending all our time pursuing dead ends.

— Josh Mitteldorf

14 October 2012


Echoes of Elephant Whispers

Lawrence Anthony, a legend in South Africa and author of 3 books including the bestseller The Elephant Whisperer, bravely rescued wildlife and rehabilitated elephants all over the globe from human atrocities, including the courageous rescue of Baghdad Zoo animals during US invasion in 2003. 

On March 7, 2012 Lawrence Anthony died.  He is remembered and missed by his wife, 2 sons, 2 grandsons and numerous elephants.  Two days after his passing, the wild elephants showed up at his home led by two large matriarchs. Separate wild herds arrived in droves to say goodbye to their beloved man-friend.

A total of 31 elephants had patiently walked over 12 miles to get to his South African House.  Witnessing this spectacle, humans were obviously in awe not only because of the supreme intelligence and precise timing that these elephants sensed about Lawrence’s passing, but also because of the profound memory and emotion the beloved animals evoked in such an organized way: Walking slowly for days - making their way in a solemn one-by-one queue from their habitat to his house.  Lawrence’s wife, Francoise, was especially touched, knowing that the elephants had not been to his house prior to that day for well over 3 years.

(I traced this story to a brief report by Marc Bekoff on the Psychology Today web site.)

Here is a more direct testimony about the most remarkable part of the story: that elephants knew telepathically when Anthony had died.
“Last Thursday, after Anthony’s death, the whole herd came to the house and they have come every night since. Anthony was convinced that they could communicate on another level. And now here they are, every night, coming to say goodbye.”

Obit last March from IOLNews, South Africa

Snopes says this may or may not be true.

15 October 2012

The eleventh precept

Do not live with a vocation that is harmful to humans and nature. Do not invest in companies that deprive others of their chance to live. Select a vocation that helps realise your ideal of compassion.

— from the Fourteen Precepts of Thich Nhat Hanh

Commentary: I have felt the power of this principle long before I heard of Thich. I find it is an ultimate challenge to be a consumer and producer in a corrupt economy, to try to maintain honor and integrity, let alone compassion in a system that has none of these. This precept is a doorway into comprehension of the fundamental injustices of our economic system, beginning with the way that money is created by a banking cartel, and continuing through the taxes we pay to support America's imperial ambitions, murderous wars, and international bullying.

16 October 2012

Let Everything Happen

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don't let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.*
Give me your hand.

— Rainer Maria Rilke, from the Book of Hours

Or perhaps, by the presumption of its intensity?

17 October 2012

From mechanics to mysticism

« Ne nous bornons donc pas à dire, comme nous le faisions plus haut, que la mystique appelle la mécanique. Ajoutons que le corps agrandi attend un supplément d'âme, et que la mécanique exigerait une mystique. Les origines de cette mécanique sont peut-être plus mystiques qu'on ne le croirait ; elle ne retrouvera sa direction vraie, elle ne rendra des services proportionnés à sa puissance, que si l'humanité qu'elle a courbée encore davantage vers la terre arrive par elle à se redresser, et à regarder le ciel.»

— Henri Bergson, né cette journée en 1872

We won’t confine ourselves to saying, as before, that the mystical must invoke the mehanical. Let us add that the expanded body awaits the complement of a soul, and that mechanics demands mystery. The origins of mechanics may be more mystical than we have supposed; science will not find its way, nor serve us in proportion to its power, until humanity returns to its earthly roots, that we might see heaven aright.

— translated with liberties, JJM

La fonction essentielle de l’univers...est à faire des dieux.

18 October 2012

All The Hemispheres

Leave the familiar for a while.
Let your senses and bodies stretch out
Like a welcomed season
Onto the meadows and shores and hills.
Open up to the Roof.
Make a new water-mark on your excitement
And love.

Like a blooming night flower,
Bestow your vital fragrance of happiness
And giving
Upon our intimate assembly.
Change rooms in your mind for a day.
All the hemispheres in existence
Lie beside an equator
In your heart.

Greet Yourself
In your thousand other forms
As you mount the hidden tide and travel
back home.

All the hemispheres in heaven
Are sitting around a fire

While stitching themselves together
Into the Great Circle inside of

— The Subject Tonight is Love - versions of Hafiz by Daniel Ladinsky

19 October 2012

Who you callin’ fool, boy?

You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this.

— Henry David Thoreau

20 October 2012

Dualism in philosophy and science

We see but half the causes of our deeds, seeking them only in the outer life, and heedless of the encircling spirit-world, which, though unseen, is felt, and sows in us all germs of pure and world-wide purposes*.

James Russell Lowell began his greatest poem with these words, prefiguring the dualism (or complementarity) that quantum physics would embrace in the ensuing century.  In the 1926 formulation of Heisenberg and Schroedinger, ‘the encircling spirit-world’ was replaced with ‘chance’, but in the 1960s it was realized that the choices that appear to be random are actually constrained in some fabulously complex way by an integrated summary of all events everywhere.  This 40-year error was also anticipated in the same poem of Lowell:

From one stage of our being to the next we pass unconscious o'er a slender bridge, the momentary work of unseen hands, which crumbles down behind us;  looking back, we see the other shore, the gulf between, and, marvelling how we won to where we stand, content ourselves to call the builder Chance.

There can be no proof that Lowell’s interpretation of the ‘other half’ of physics is correct, but I find it a profoundly appealing and comforting perspective, which I endeavor to adopt toward all that I do not, and perhaps cannot know.  It is an antidote to the dogmatism of the scientific atheist, not to pick on Sean Carroll who recently articultated the position thus:

There is an enormous amount that we don’t know about how the world works, but we actually do know the basic rules underlying atoms and their interactions — enough to rule out telekinesis, life after death, and so on. The second point is that those laws are dysteleological — they describe a universe without intrinsic meaning or purpose

In Ludwig Wittgenstein’s most famous line, he tersely countenances mysticism: Wherof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

* This reference to ‘purposes’ is bound to strike us as teleological.  It seems unscientific to ascribe to any cause an antecedent effect.  But in fact, our intuitive notion of causality applies only to the ‘front half’ of quantum duality, while the ‘back half’ defies all rules of causal direction.  So even in this respect, Lowell’s picture of the world is physically tenable.

21 October 2012

We may all endeavor to adopt the perspective of genius

It is the privilege of genius that to it life never grows common-place, as to the rest of us.

James Russell Lowell

22 October 2012

Poem that would be more interesting without its title

It hovers in dark corners
before the lights are turned on,
it shakes sleep from its eyes
and drops from mushroom gills,
it explodes in the starry heads
of dandelions turned sages,
it sticks to the wings of green angels
that sail from the tops of maples.

It sprouts in each occluded eye
of the many-eyed potato,
it lives in each earthworm segment
surviving cruelty,
it is the motion that runs the tail of a dog,
it is the mouth that inflates the lungs
of the child that has just been born.
It is the singular gift
we cannot destroy in ourselves,
the argument that refutes death,
the genius that invents the future,
all we know of God.

It is the serum which makes us swear
not to betray one another;
it is in this poem, trying to speak.

Lisel Mueller

23 October 2012

Sofia Gubaidulina

Constantly interesting sounds. The more I listen, the more there is to hear.

Listen to Silenzia by Sofia Gubaidulina, born this day in 1931

24 October 2012

All knowledge is partial, infinitesimally partial. Reason is a net thrown out into an ocean. What truth it brings in is a fragment, a glimpse, a scintillation of the whole truth.

— Ursula K. LeGuin

25 October 2012


Life’s pulses beating now, with new existence,
Greet the mild ethereal half-light round me:
Thou, Earth, stood firm tonight, as well: I sense
Thy breath is quickening all the things about me,
Already, with that joy thou giv’st, beginning
To stir the strengthening resolve in me,
That strives, forever, towards the highest Being. –
Now the world unfolds, in half-light’s gleam,
The wood’s alive, its thousand harmonies singing,
While through the valleys, misted ribbons stream:
And heavenly light now penetrates the deep:
Twigs, branches shoot, with fresher life it seems,
From fragrant gulfs, where they were sunk in sleep:
Colour on colour lifts now from the ground,
As leaf and flower with trembling dewdrops weep –
And a paradise reveals itself, all round.
Gaze upwards! – The vast mountain heights
Already with the solemn hour resound:
They are the first to enjoy th’eternal light
That later, for us, will work its way below.

Goethe, tr A. S. Kline

26 October 2012

Gloria in excelsis deo

Listen to Gloria from Masque of Angels by Dominick Argento, born this day in 1927

27 October 2012


Until the Enlightment, the Western intelligentsia had made peace with the fact that the world is full of surprises, unpredicted and unpredictable.  Rational ordering of earthly events had its place, but it did not exclude the possibility of anomalies and exceptions, which everyone acknowledged were part of the common store of experience

It was in the 19th Century that the notion that ‘there are no miracles’ gained currency.  Natural law had explained enough of our observations that we were ready to take a radical leap of faith to assume that natural law explains everything; that it is only our knowledge of natural law, not its domain of applicability, that is limited.

It is the radically ambitious project of Science to categorize, characterize and ultimately to explain all phenomena of nature.  It is hubris to assume this is possible.  There can be no rational basis for presuming that everything observed will ultimately yield and be tamed by our laws and logic.  Certainly the common experience of irreproducibility in science should make us wary of any presumption about universality.

...And yet, in any individual case, we would be wise not to throw up our hands and say, ‘I guess this is just one of those one-off anomalies.’  There is a close analogy here to Goedel’s theorem in math.  We know for a fact that an infinite number of true theorems cannot be proved; and yet we cannot know if the theorem in front of us is one of them, so we keep trying and keep hoping.

Good science demands of us both hubris (to try explaining everything we encounter) and humility (to know that we will frequently fail, and remember that some things will not ever be explained).*

— Josh Mitteldorf

*also: judgment to decide which phenomena are both interesting and accessible enough that we stand a reasonable chance of making headway with them.

28 October 2012

Elijah prays for rain

Then Elijah said to Ahab, “Go get something to eat and drink, for I hear a mighty rainstorm coming!” So Ahab went to eat and drink. But Elijah climbed to the top of Mount Carmel and bowed low to the ground and prayed with his face between his knees.

Then he said to his servant, “Go and look out toward the sea.” The servant went and looked, then returned to Elijah and said, “I didn’t see anything.”

Seven times Elijah told him to go and look. Finally the seventh time, his servant told him, “I saw a little cloud about the size of a man’s hand rising from the sea.”

Then Elijah shouted, “Hurry to Ahab and tell him, ‘Climb into your chariot and go back home. If you don’t hurry, the rain will stop you!’”

And soon the sky was black with clouds. A heavy wind brought a terrific rainstorm, and Ahab left quickly for Jezreel.

— National weather service report for Monday night

29 October 2012

Cultivating empathy

Tara Brach offers us this practice: For each person you meet or encounter, imagine what it is to live inside his or her skin.  Look out at the world and at yourself through the eyes of another, and relate to him or her on that basis.

Watch a short video

Who is looking through those eyes? Who is really there?

30 October 2012

Patron Saint of Halloween

The ninety and nine are with dreams, content
But the hope of the world made new,
Is the hundredth man who is grimly bent
On making those dreams come true

— Edgar Allan Poe

Science has not yet taught us if madness is or is not the sublimity of the intelligence.

31 October 2012

Queen of Hearts — Archive of past entries. Bullfrog Design