Science As Music And Poetry

A common perspective held by many modern scientists is the notion of reductionism. For example, according to reductionism, economic patterns can be explained by psychology, which in turn can be attributed to biology and chemistry, all of which can be understood by understanding the underlying physics, all the way down to learning about the most fundamental particles. This is essentially the approach taught at most respected western scientific institutions.

There are several known problems to this approach. Due to the complexity of the problems that scientists deal with these days, specialists tend to focus very narrowly on their subject. For example, I study the magnetic properties of electrons, namely their spin, in various materials and their interactions with light. The instrumentation I deal with are typically sensitive detectors of current and voltage, as well as detectors of light, leading to counts in a spectrometer or an image on a computer screen. So if I am good at my job I can learn about new effects regarding electron motion and interaction with light in a magnetic field, which can lead to useful technology. However, my investigations don’t make me any wiser about how cells reproduce, or how embryos develop according to genetic code in DNA molecules, and much less about how the economy works.

This reductionist approach of chipping away at the boundaries of knowledge has other problems. For example, it is so expensive to do cutting edge research, and requires so much specialization, that only a small percentage of the population end up doing it. Therefore most people have to rely on what the scientists say. This is why, unlike political journalism that plays a crucial role in politics and elections and forming popular opinion, scientific journalism mainly just consists of translating research publications to a non-technical language and advertising their importance to the general public, who in turn have to accept this information as the last word as they have no means to challenge it. Therefore, a reductionist has no choice but to say: I don’t know the answer to any of the major philosophical questions about my existence in the universe, but I am confident that one day the scientists will figure it all out. This is not only extremely passive, but may prove to be ultimately disappointing. Given the trajectory of science over the past several hundred years, these answers don’t seem likely to pop out of a laboratory during our lifetimes.

This brings us to the next difficulty in reductionism. Scientists of the twentieth century found that the ancient concept of ‘atoms’ as indivisible, fundamental building blocks of nature was not true, and that atoms themselves were composed of electrons, protons, and neutrons. We now think electrons are fundamental particles because we can’t seem to divide them or see any smaller constituents. However, protons and neutrons are composed of smaller particles called quarks. Quarks are varied and ‘colorful’, and come in various flavors with crazy names like ‘strange’, ‘beauty’, and ‘truth’ quarks, which are held together by other particles known as ‘gluons’. Scientists are hoping to find a quantum particle of gravity, or the ‘graviton’ for decades. We don’t know if any of these particles will be the end of the line in reductionism, or just the beginning of all sorts of new phenomena like strings in string theory that run into new complexities. Therefore, this approach to understanding nature, although definitely worth pursuing, is not likely to satisfy our existential concerns or lead to harmonious societies.

Most people recognize these problems and aren’t holding their breaths for science to deliver them ready-packaged answers to their big questions. They look to science to deliver medical and technological advances, as well as information about our planet and outer space, but for their existential concerns they turn to religion, mysticism, literature, film, music, dance, yoga, and other spiritual activities. This is true even in the cases of the most prominent reductionist scientists, such as Newton, Tesla, Descartes, and Einstein.

Eastern philosophies, particularly Buddhism and Hinduism, have offered a more holistic view of the universe where intense scrutiny of the details of nature are discouraged, in favor of a general understanding of our inner selves and how we relate to our surroundings as a whole. These viewpoints favor an abandonment of materialistic reductionism, considering it a distraction from the important truths. The associated practices, such as meditation and yoga, are very appealing to the general public, because they don’t require expensive equipment or fancy laboratories. However, given the ‘intuitive’ versus ‘pedagogical’ nature of these methods, they are very difficult to teach and even more difficult to master, especially for people living in the west and brought up on a materialistic reductionist school of thought. Also, unlike materialistic science that leads to technological and medical advances that drive the economy, the eastern practices mentioned above do not advance economies. This often leads people to live dual lives, as materialists when at work and non-materialists in their personal time.

A major development for mankind would be a third way that bridges the holistic perspective of the east with the scientific rigor and reproducibility of the west. Ideally, such an approach would allow participants to contribute to knowledge in their own homes or at least at a low cost, and without having to follow the teachings of a guru blindly. Music is an example of this, which has developed independently over the years in many parts of the world, embodies scientific technicality and reproducibility as well as addressing our deepest spiritual conflicts, and usually does not cost a fortune to pursue. In many cases (Robert Johnson, Keith Richards, Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana, Kurt Cobain, John Frusciante, …) instruction is not even necessary. Language is another example of this marriage of technicality and rigor with spirituality and emotion. A modification of the current materialistic reductionist approach to embody relationships between different fields, which considers the universe more than just the sum of its parts, the way a song is so much more than a sum of its notes and a novel is more than combinations of words, may culminate in a renaissance in science unlike any we have seen before.

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Jimi Hendrix, considered by many to be the greatest electric guitarist in history, was self-taught.

 

Imitation of Life

Recently, my wife and I have decided to transition towards vegetarianism. For me, this is partly driven by meat heavy Czech dishes, like roasted pork, grilled duck and pork liver that make me wish I had just ordered a salad. It’s also driven by the uneasy feeling I get browsing the meat section in the supermarket; particularly the packages of minced meats never fail to creep me out.

I have a vegan colleague who introduced me to a bunch of Tibetan, Indian, and Chinese vegan restaurants sprinkled around Prague. He pointed out how amazing it was that these places offered buffets with so much variety and changing daily menus using just vegetables, grains, and tofu, while other restaurants can use any ingredient under the sun and they end up making goulash.

I was a vegetarian for a while in college, and my motivation was not so much the moral or ethical repercussions of eating meat, but a love for rice, bean, and cheese burritos that I thought gave me all the sustenance I needed.

But now that my wife is really getting into vegetarianism, we find ourselves watching more documentaries about food and the raising and slaughtering of animals in factory farms. It is heart wrenching to see animals treated that way: cows that are so confined they can’t even fully turn around, pigs that spend their days splayed out on the floor, seemingly unconscious, while being sucked dry by a mob of thirsty piglets, and chickens that are artificially raised to fatten up so quickly that their legs cannot support their own body weight, so they just plop down miserably in the dark. Not to mention footage of sadistic farmers who kick the chickens around. All these images make eating animals seem like a really cruel and inhumane thing to do.

But what about eating plants? Just like animals, plants have a will to survive. This is manifested in their nourishment, respiration, and reproduction. The notion that it is admissible to eat plants because their consciousness has not developed enough through evolution to protest their killing is an artificial distinction made by humans, as we habitually associate contested killing with a life that should not be taken away.

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The boundaries between animals and plants become blurred when plants display animalistic traits, such as carnivorous plants.

When my wife became pregnant with our daughter about two years ago, I was amazed that a life had emerged in her belly. But, probably like for most parents, my daughter’s personhood was intangible and difficult for me to grasp. At only three weeks, my daughter was a ball of cells with a full set of DNA containing blueprints for her growth, determining her sex and eye color among other physical traits. By around five weeks, her heart began to beat. Soon after she had eyes and eyelids and fingers and a nose, and then her vital organs, including her brain, started to function. But at which point did her ‘life’ begin?

Obviously this question has been central to the hugely controversial topic of abortion rights. Medical experts, philosophers, and theologians have battled it out and failed to reach a consensus on the starting point of life. Is it the moment of conception? The moment of birth? Somewhere in between? The point of ‘viability’ has often been pointed to as a cut-off milestone, which vaguely refers to the point when the baby can live independently from the mother. The arbitrariness of this milestone is highlighted by technological advances, where machine-assisted life support is constantly pushing back the age where a fetus can survive outside of the mother’s body. So then the definition of life is made not by biology, but by technology.

How ‘alive’ we are compared to animals and plants, and then the cells and subsequently the molecules, atoms and subatomic particles that constitute them, is a very interesting question to ponder. The wonderful book by Rupert Sheldrake, ‘The Science Delusion’, delves into this topic in a chapter called: ‘Is matter unconscious?’. He argues that although we often confront situations where we make conscious decisions, a majority of our actions, like driving to work, showering, breathing, eating, etc, take place in the form of various routines or habits. The lives of animals can be considered to be more strongly governed by such habits, and less by conscious decisions. Like humans, animals are driven by certain natural forces such as hunger and sexuality, as well as feelings such as pleasure and pain, to behave and act in certain ways that have become habitual to them. The same can be said for plants, even though their actions are much more subtle and difficult for us to perceive unless we are very attentive, or botanists.

But then Rupert Sheldrake goes a step further. Do particles also display traits of life by forming habits? Physicists know that electrons are also guided and drawn by natural forces, namely electric and magnetic fields, to which they respond in a way that can be considered to be habitual. Given that electrons have charge, they are drawn to electric fields, and given that they have spin, they respond to and precess about magnetic fields.

But can it be said that electrons have a will? When confronted with multiple paths in an electrical circuit, it is well-known that they take the path of least resistance. But how do they know this before hand? In one analogy I found on the internet, it is like people leaving a crowded movie theater with two doors, a large one and a small one. The first few people leaving may choose a door at random, but after a while most people will flock towards the larger door, because people at that door are exiting more quickly, which is habitually favorable for us.  According to this analogy, the electron is making a decision, which gives it some degree of free will, even if it is eventually acting out of habit.

My physics professors were always careful not to draw any philosophical conclusions in their lectures in quantum mechanics. This is the so-called ‘Copenhagen Interpretation’; namely that we should only believe what the equations tell us, even if they make no intuitive sense, and not venture to speculate what they imply outside of quantifiable probabilities. It has been the domain of philosophers to contemplate these questions, which seems difficult to do if you aren’t a trained physicist, or have the mathematical prowess that is needed to understand the complicated equations that form the language of quantum mechanics.

A good example of a quantum mechanical experiment with many philosophical implications is the infamous double slit experiment, first attributed to Thomas Young for his apparatus using light. In this experiment, a beam of electrons is directed towards a barrier that has two small slits cut out of it. When reaching the barrier, the electron has a choice of which slit to go through. By placing a detecting screen at a distance behind this barrier, we can tell where the electron has arrived at the screen, but we don’t know which path was taken. According to quantum mechanics, the electron has a certain probability of taking either path, and since its wavefunction is determined by the sum of possible paths, it can be considered to take both paths simultaneously. This is why interference patterns form, which implies that the electron has indeed taken both paths, just like a wave. If the electron has taken both paths, then it can be presumed that it appeared at two different locations at once.  By trying to measure which slit the electron goes through, we collapse its wavefunction by determining its path and removing the other probabilities, which leads to a disappearance of the interference pattern. So there appears to be a very strange thing going on, with electrons acting out their wills in a sphere that we have no experimental access to.

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Electrons arriving at the screen form an interference pattern, even when triggered one at a time.

Unfortunately, people who attempt to discuss ideas such as the will of an electron are often categorically dismissed as quacks, even though such a discussion seems central to our understanding of what life means.

Déjà Vu All Over Again

When I was a kid I had an immense fear of infinity. I would lie awake at night picturing a vast desert that stretched out infinitely in all directions, devoid of any objects save for prickly cacti scattered about the empty landscape. I imagined that was what death would be like: a long stretch of nothingness that was completely silent forever and always.

Religious teachings indoctrinated in me compounded my fears with images of eternal fires in hell and never ending streams of honey in heaven, and I couldn’t decide which was worse. It seemed to me that anything that stretched on forever without change was fundamentally disturbing and ultimately horrifying.

The origins of the universe according to creationism were equally unsatisfying to my mind. For the universe to appear suddenly according to the will of a divine entity contrasted with the slowness of natural processes that unfolded around me. These processes seemed to go through cycles gradually, like seasons.

I remember reading about the Big Bang for the first time in Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, when I was still in high school. Once again, I was disturbed by all the infinities that the theory seemed to imply. For the universe to spring out of nowhere with an infinite density and infinite temperature was just mind-boggling. Of course, I later learned that the Big Bang theory does not actually propose that such a universe existed, but Einstein’s equations of general relativity, on which the theory is based, run into such infinities, known as a singularity, when time is extrapolated all the way back to zero.

At moments just after t=0, these infinities are dispelled. In just fractions of a second, the Big Bang theory paints a picture of the universe as a hot, dense soup, with elementary particles such as electrons, protons, neutrons and photons zipping around in an opaque haze, with matter and anti-matter rapidly interacting and annihilating each other, followed by creation of new particles. The prevalence of matter over anti-matter presumably tipped the scales, which is why matter exists today. After a few hundred thousand years, neutral entities such as the hydrogen atom formed. This was an important development, as these entities absorbed much less light, allowing for light to roam more freely in a relatively transparent universe. It is particularly this wandering light from the early universe, known as the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, that has served as the most convincing experimental proof of the Big Bang theory, and helps us date the birth of our universe to about 14 billion years ago.

Einstein himself was unhappy about the singularities his equations ran into, and chalked them up to inadequacies of general relativity in dealing with the quantum phenomena of the early universe. He hoped a grand unified theory would do away with all the infinities, and worked towards this goal in the latter part of his career, albeit to no avail. To this day, physicists are actively seeking a plausible theory of quantum gravity that may resolve the singularity problems. In the meantime, we have to live with the fact that the Big Bang model breaks down at t=0, and has no explanation of what happened at or before that time.

One implication of the Big Bang theory is that the universe is expanding, which is also supported experimentally by the observation of red-shifts from distant galaxies. Namely, galaxies are moving away from us, and the further away they are the faster they are receding, according to the Hubble Constant. Since our vantage point is not special in the universe, this means the universe is being pulled apart everywhere. To explain the tendency of galaxies to move away from each other despite gravitational forces, the notion of dark energy was introduced. Today, dark energy is estimated to account for 68.3% of the mass-energy total of the universe. Along with dark matter, a completely unknown form of matter required to explain gravitational forces in galaxies, 94.1% of the universe is composed of dark energy and dark mass. We have no clue what they are, as we currently have no way to probe them.

Considering that the universe is expanding now, can we assume that it will continue to expand forever? The fate of the universe, according to the Big Bang framework, hinges on whether the mass density of the universe is greater or less than a certain critical value. In one case, the universe expands ceaselessly, while the stars in the galaxies run out of interstellar gases to light their furnaces, eventually leading to their deaths in the form of white dwarves, neutron stars, or black holes, depending on their size.  Black holes will swallow dead stars and each other and eventually evaporate, in an endlessly cooling universe with a temperature approaching absolute zero – known as the Big Freeze. This is quite a bleak scenario indeed.

An alternative scenario, still consistent with Big Bang theory, is that the universe will expand up to a certain point, then contract again towards a high-density, high-temperature state, known as the Big Crunch. In several cosmological models, the contraction of the universe never actually reaches zero volume, and instead bounces back into another state of expansion in a so-called Big Bounce. The beauty of such models is that they never have to deal with singularities at t=0, and they never have to say farewell to the stars once and for all. It would just be good-bye, for now.

One model that embodies the Big Bounce scenario is known as quantum loop theory. In this theory, spacetime itself is quantized into tiny ‘atoms’ that weave together and define the fabric of space and time that permeate all matter in the universe. Since the units of spacetime are discrete, speculated to be on the order of the Planck length, or 10-35m, the universe can never contract to volumes smaller than a certain size, hence keeping the density of the universe and its temperature finite even at the time of utmost contraction.

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From left to right: Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva are responsible for the birth, life, and death of a cyclically repeating universe, according to Hindu cosmology

Quantum loop theory is one of many models that agree with Big Bang theory while allowing for the possibility of a cyclic universe. Ekpyrotic theory, rooted in string theory, describes the Big Bang as a result of a collision between branes, multi-dimensional generalizations of strings, where a burst of dark energy drives the expansion of the universe. According to this theory, the dark energy is eventually depleted, allowing for the universe to contract according to gravitational forces, which in turn can result in subsequent collisions of branes. Peter Lynds has proposed a universe that avoids violating the second law of thermodynamics by reversing the arrow of time when the contracting universe approaches a singularity, hence expanding again and causing the universe to go through cycles, which he believes to be exact repeats.

Friedrich Nietzsche was perhaps the most poetic champion of an exactly repeating universe. In his own words:

“Whoever thou mayest be, beloved stranger, whom I meet here for the first time, avail thyself of this happy hour and of the stillness around us, and above us, and let me tell thee something of the thought which has suddenly risen before me like a star which would fain shed down its rays upon thee and every one, as befits the nature of light. Fellow man! Your whole life, like a sandglass, will always be reversed and will ever run out again, a long minute of time will elapse until all those conditions out of which you were evolved return in the wheel of the cosmic process. And then you will find every pain and every pleasure, every friend and every enemy, every hope and every error, every blade of grass and every ray of sunshine once more, and the whole fabric of things which make up your life. This ring in which you are but a grain will glitter afresh forever. And in every one of these cycles of human life there will be one hour where, for the first time one man, and then many, will perceive the mighty thought of the eternal recurrence of all things—and for mankind this is always the hour of Noon.”

We Are All Waves

Light is something that we tend to take for granted in everyday life. It’s not light itself that we are usually interested in, but the things that light illuminates: the shapes of objects, colors, faces, and cherry blossoms that seemingly spring out of nowhere and inspire us with their beauty.

Light is also something I have been dealing with in the lab for several years now. Low levels of light that carry information, quantum information, that one day, I hope, may find an application in low-energy, high-speed optical communications. But certain things about light have always puzzled me. Like the way it just appears, or is emitted, when electrons relax to lower energy levels. Where does it come from? Where does it go when it gets absorbed, like in solar cells? Does it just disappear? After travelling approximately 100 million miles from the sun to the earth, it just up and disappears? We know it travels at a very high speed, but how? With all the advances in modern physics, the true nature of light is still a mystery. So what is light, exactly?

Philosophers and scientists alike have grappled with this question for centuries, and their views seem to generally place the nature of light into two vastly different categories: 1- Light is composed of tiny particles traveling in straight lines and bouncing off objects, or 2- Light consists of oscillating fields propagating through the fabric of the universe as waves. Quantum mechanics makes things even more confusing, stating that light behaves sometimes like a particle and sometimes like a wave.

This duality has fueled numerous debates over the years. Some of the earliest Greek philosophers, including Empedocles (5th century BCE) and Plato (4th century BCE), held that light originates from our own eyes, and bounces off objects and returns to our eyes, allowing us to see them. Empedocles believed that Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, lit a fire in our eyes, fire being one of the four elements, serving as a source of light. To address the problem of not being able to see at night, he postulated a necessary reaction between the rays from the eyes and the rays from a source, such as the sun. Aristotle’s view was radical at the time, in thinking of light as a disturbance in the element air created by a source such as the sun and only detected, not created, by the eye. Meanwhile, Democritus, the father of atomistic thinking, considered light to be no different from matter in the sense that it is ultimately composed of indivisible, unbreakable units, which places him in the particle camp and makes him an early visionary of the modern concept of the photon.

Much later, Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens and French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel were able to explain many properties of light, such as reflection, refraction, and later diffraction and interference, by treating light as a wave where each point on the wave front can itself be considered to be a point source of a secondary spherical wave. Meanwhile, Newton was convinced of the particle, or ‘corpuscule’ nature of light, due to the power of Euclidean ray optics in describing how reflection occurs in mirrors and how prisms produce rainbows from sunlight.

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