Communion Of Dreams


Emit fo worra.*
December 16, 2009, 11:27 am
Filed under: Art, Cosmic Variance, Science, Scientific American, YouTube

Nice – here’s another show for “The Explosions Channel“:

Jim Downey

(Via MeFi. *Apologies to Sean Carroll.)



Harry Potter and the Superstring Revolution

(This is one of my newspaper columns from Columbia Daily Tribune, updated with links. Thought it might be of interest while I am away for a few days.  – JD)

Harry Potter and the Superstring Revolution

One of my favorite String Theory blogs (yeah, I have rather eclectic interests) recently got into a discussion of the new Harry Potter movie. Even hard-core physicists like to discuss movies in addition to the latest research into 11-dimension supergravity and the advantages of D-branes over M-theory. Which is good, because when these people start throwing around the advanced math wizardry needed to really understand these concepts I’m just a Muggle. But if they talk movies or art, I can chime in with the best of them.

Anyway, the discussion of Goblet of Fire turned into a debate of whether or not the Potter books themselves should really be considered literature. And, frankly, it was rather funny to watch a bunch of really smart people try and wrestle with something so completely outside of their field of training. Sure, most of them had taken some lit classes while undergrads, but they were working with tools not really suited to the problem. It’d be like me, with a little bit of math from college 25 years ago, trying to engage one of them on the validity of the Superstring Revolution. I might have a general understanding of the issues involved, but I’m completely unequipped to contribute anything meaningful to the debate in the language of science.

What was really interesting about this, though, was that none of them saw it that way. They were all certain that their opinions of literature, as an intellectual exercise, were completely valid. They had fallen into the trap of thinking that their likes or dislikes in literature was all that was necessary to have an informed debate.

This is a common problem with all the arts. Non-artists usually think that their personal preferences are all that matters. If someone doesn’t like a Pollock drip painting, then it isn’t “art.” If they think that opera is boring, then that’s sufficient to consider it outmoded and useless. And conceptual art . . . well, it’s beyond the conceptual boundary horizon for most folks and so doesn’t even exist. Might as well be magic.

Furthermore, if you challenge these opinions people will get really indignant and defensive. They don’t want to hear that an understanding of the issues involved is necessary to appreciate some art. The old line “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like” will pop up in one form or another very quickly.

And on one level, that’s OK. I wouldn’t think of telling someone that they couldn’t form an opinion about what they like or dislike in art any more than I would consider telling them what they liked to eat for breakfast. But if you’ve never even heard of eggs, how can you have an opinion on the proper preparation of a nice quiche? It’d be like having strong feelings about word choice in the translation of Rilke’s Der Schwan when you don’t speak German. Sure, you can have an opinion, but it’s not something I’m going to take particularly seriously.

This isn’t to say that only an ‘expert’ can have a valid opinion about art. Hardly. By its very nature art is designed to elicit a response even in the uninformed. It’s perfectly OK to say “I like that painting.” Or, “I don’t care for opera.” But when someone starts to try and talk about the validity of a particular work of art (or music, literature, et cetera), they need to know what they’re talking about. Otherwise, people will treat you like the guy sitting in the sports bar who keeps yelling “pass the ball” at the TV during the baseball game. Or, perhaps more appropriately, like the guy at the Quidditch match who keeps calling for a relief pitcher.

Jim Downey



Reality is what happens to you while you’re busy coming up with other theories.*

*Apologies to both John Lennon and Philip K. Dick.

Last Saturday, my sister and her husband came to town, and we celebrated Thanksgiving.  Yes, about six months late.

* * * * * * *

About two weeks ago Sean Carroll of Cosmic Variance had a teaser post up about a new article of his in Scientific American.  Carroll has long been one of my favorite reads in cosmology, and his discussion of the cosmological basis for time’s arrow was delightful.  From the opening of the article:

Among the unnatural aspects of the universe, one stands out: time asymmetry. The microscopic laws of physics that underlie the behavior of the universe do not distinguish between past and future, yet the early universe—hot, dense, homogeneous—is completely different from today’s—cool, dilute, lumpy. The universe started off orderly and has been getting increasingly disorderly ever since. The asymmetry of time, the arrow that points from past to future, plays an unmistakable role in our everyday lives: it accounts for why we cannot turn an omelet into an egg, why ice cubes never spontaneously unmelt in a glass of water, and why we remember the past but not the future. And the origin of the asymmetry we experience can be traced all the way back to the orderliness of the universe near the big bang. Every time you break an egg, you are doing observational cosmology.

The arrow of time is arguably the most blatant feature of the universe that cosmologists are currently at an utter loss to explain. Increasingly, however, this puzzle about the universe we observe hints at the existence of a much larger spacetime we do not observe. It adds support to the notion that we are part of a multiverse whose dynamics help to explain the seemingly unnatural features of our local vicinity.

Carroll goes on to explore what those hints (and the implications of same) are in some detail, though all of it is suitable for a non-scientist.  The basic idea of how to reconcile the evident asymmetry is to consider our universe, as vast and ancient as it is, as only one small part of a greater whole.  We are living, as it were, in a quantum flux of the froth of spacetime of a larger multiverse:

Emit fo Worra
This scenario, proposed in 2004 by Jennifer Chen of the University of Chicago and me, provides a provocative solution to the origin of time asymmetry in our observable universe: we see only a tiny patch of the big picture, and this larger arena is fully time-symmetric. Entropy can increase without limit through the creation of new baby universes.

Best of all, this story can be told backward and forward in time. Imagine that we start with empty space at some particular moment and watch it evolve into the future and into the past. (It goes both ways because we are not presuming a unidirectional arrow of time.) Baby universes fluctuate into existence in both directions of time, eventually emptying out and giving birth to babies of their own. On ultralarge scales, such a multiverse would look statistically symmetric with respect to time—both the past and the future would feature new universes fluctuating into life and proliferating without bound. Each of them would experience an arrow of time, but half would have an arrow that was reversed with respect to that in the others.

A tantalizing hint of a larger picture, indeed.

* * * * * * *

Philip K. Dick, tormented mad genius that he was, said something that has become something of a touchstone for me:  “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”

It is, in fact, a large part of the basis for my skeptical attitude towards life.  But it also leaves open the idea of examining and incorporating new information which might be contrary to my beliefs.  It is this idea which I explored over the 132,000 words of Communion of Dreams, though not everyone realizes this at first reading.

But what if reality only exists if you believe in it?

That’s a question discussed in another longish piece of science writing in the current issue of Seed Magazine, titled The Reality Tests:

Most of us would agree that there exists a world outside our minds. At the classical level of our perceptions, this belief is almost certainly correct. If your couch is blue, you will observe it as such whether drunk, in high spirits, or depressed; the color is surely independent of the majority of your mental states. If you discovered your couch were suddenly red, you could be sure there was a cause. The classical world is real, and not only in your head. Solipsism hasn’t really been a viable philosophical doctrine for decades, if not centuries.

But that reality goes right up against one of the basic notions of quantum mechanics: the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.  Or does it?  For decades, the understanding of quantum effects was that it was applicable at the atomic-and-smaller level.  Only in such rare phenomenon as a Bose-Einstein Condensate (which in Communion is the basis for some of the long-range sensors being used to search for habitable planets outside our solar system) were quantum effects seen at a macroscopic scale.  But in theory, maybe our whole reality operates at a quantum level, regardless of scale:

Brukner and Kofler had a simple idea. They wanted to find out what would happen if they assumed that a reality similar to the one we experience is true—every large object has only one value for each measurable property that does not change. In other words, you know your couch is blue, and you don’t expect to be able to alter it just by looking. This form of realism, “macrorealism,” was first posited by Leggett in the 1980s.

Late last year Brukner and Kofler showed that it does not matter how many particles are around, or how large an object is, quantum mechanics always holds true. The reason we see our world as we do is because of what we use to observe it. The human body is a just barely adequate measuring device. Quantum mechanics does not always wash itself out, but to observe its effects for larger and larger objects we would need more and more accurate measurement devices. We just do not have the sensitivity to observe the quantum effects around us. In essence we do create the classical world we perceive, and as Brukner said, “There could be other classical worlds completely different from ours.”

Indeed.

* * * * * * *

Last Saturday, my sister and her husband came to town, and we celebrated Thanksgiving.  Yes, about six months late.   Because last year, going in to the usual Thanksgiving holiday, we had our hands full caring for Martha Sr and didn’t want to subject her to the disconcerting effect of having ‘strangers’ in the house.  Following Martha Sr’s death in February, other aspects of life had kept either my sister or us busy and unable to schedule a time to get together.

Until last weekend.  And that’s OK.  Because life is what we make of it.  Whether that applies to cosmology or not I’ll leave up to the scientists and philosophers for now (though I have weighed in on the matter as mentioned above and reserve the right to do so again in other books).  This I can tell you – it was good to see my sister and her husband, and the turkey dinner we ate was delicious.

Jim Downey



Tomorrow’s Girls

They’re mixing with the population
A virus wearing pumps and pearls
Lord help the lonely guys
Hooked by those hungry eyes
Here come Tomorrow’s Girls
Tomorrow’s Girls

Donald Fagan, “Tomorrow’s Girls” from Kamakiriad

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

I can always tell when I’m feeling better, or have gotten a bit of sleep and am able to think (somewhat) again: I get that little rush of energy, mind jumping and drawing connections between ostensibly divergent topics. It is a shadow of the way I feel when my bipolar condition swings to the manic phase, and all things seem clear and possible.

Such is the case this morning.

I read a lot of science blogs. Pharyngula. Cosmic Variance. Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy. The Angry Toxicologist. But even before he started blogging at The Loom, I was aware of the science reporting of Carl Zimmer. And recently Carl posted a link to his Seed Magazine cover story “The Meaning of Life.” It’s not terribly long, and you should just go read the whole thing.

But among the entire very interesting article is this wonderful idea: that it is a mistake to try and define what life is right now. Philosopher Carol Cleland of NASA’s Institute for Astrobiology is very much in the thick of this, saying that we do not have the necessary perspective. As Zimmer puts it:

Instead of trying to formulate a definition of life, Cleland and Chyba argue, we need to develop a theory of life—an overarching explanation of nature that joins together a myriad of seemingly random phenomena. Biologists have discovered a number of theories–the germ theory of disease and Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, for example—yet they have no full-fledged theory of life itself. The underlying uniformity of life is one of the great discoveries of modern biology, but it’s also an obstacle. It represents only a single data point, and blinds us to the possibilities of “weird life.” We have no idea exactly which features of life as we know it are essential to life as we don’t know it.

A theory of life would allow us to understand what matters to life, what possible forms it can take, and why. It would let us see connections that we might otherwise miss, just as chemists can see the hidden unity between a cloud in the sky and a block of ice. Scientists are already trying to build a theory of life. A number of researchers have been developing a theory in which life is a self-organized system that can be described using the same principles physicists use to describe hurricanes or galaxies. As biologists learn more and more about how the millions of molecules in a cell work together, these theorists can put their ideas to more precise tests.

For Cleland, the most promising way to build a theory of life is to look for alien life. In 2013, the European Space Agency plans to put a rover back on Mars. Called Exomars, it will drill into the Martian crust to seek out signs of life. NASA has plans of its own on the drawing board, including one possible mission that would bring Martian soil back to Earth for intense study. Meanwhile, other promising habitats for life, such as some of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, beckon. Cleland argues that finding alien life would allow us to start figuring out what is truly universal about life, rather than just generalizing from life as we know it. Only when we have more data, she reasons, will we have a basis for comparison. As it stands now, says Cleland, “we have no grist for the theoretical mill.”

Brilliant. This is not unlike the revolution in perspective which occurred with the transition to a heliocentric model of the solar system. It necessarily moves us from the bias that our version of life is the only possible model. I’ve written about this previously, but it is good to see such a complete treatment of the topic as Zimmer gives it.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

It looks like scientists have discovered the likely culprit in the collapse of the honey bee populations in the US: a virus.

Virus implicated in bee decline

A virus has emerged as a strong suspect in the hunt for the mystery disease killing off North American honeybees.

Genetic research showed that Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV) turned up regularly in hives affected by Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).

Over the last three years, between 50% and 90% of commercial bee colonies in the US have been affected by CCD.

And from the same source:

Also open is the question of how the virus arrived in the US. One finger of suspicion points to Australia, from where the US began importing honeybees in 2004 – the very year that CCD appeared in US hives.

The researchers found IAPV in Australian bees, and they are now planning to go back through historical US samples to see if the Antipodean imports really were the first carriers.

If they were, the US might consider closing its borders to Australian bees.

The way the researchers determined that a virus was involved is also interesting. Since the honey bee genome has been ‘solved’ (completely mapped), they were able to assay the entire genetic contents of a hive and then remove the known components. What was left included some bacterial agents which are probably in symbiotic harmony with the bees, and various fungi and other items. By comparing a healthy hive’s genetic assay with one suffering from CCD, they were able to identify possible culprits – in this case, the IAPV.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Communion of Dreams is set in a post-pandemic Earth, where a viral agent was responsible for widespread death and sterility some 40 years prior to the time of the novel. One good model of exactly how that could happen is CCD with the honey bees, though that has occurred in the time since I first wrote the book.

Now, how does this all tie together? Well, only because the researchers looking into the honey bee problem had the tools of genetic mapping available to them were they able to understand what was (likely) going on. Something similar happens in Communion on two fronts – resolving the riddle of the orphan girl and understanding the threat of the new virus. But perhaps more importantly, there is the mystery of the alien artifact and its connection the the superconducting gel, which I describe as “more alive than not” – this gets to the very heart of the issue of understanding the true nature of the universe, and discarding our previous biases.

Oh, and lastly, I’m sure we’ll see something from Zimmer about the IAPV discovery. Why? Because one of his specialties is the nightmare-inducing world of parasites, and looking at the evolutionary struggle between hosts and diseases.

Jim Downey