Sunday, April 23, 2006

Andy Rooney, Astrophysicist and Breakfast Theoretician

Some knotty problems in Astrophysics solved.

Notes on the Inflationary Universe: Djever notice how bagels keep getting bigger, until they’re too fat to fit in your toaster, and then you have to buy a larger and fancier toaster? This detail from the Breakfast Arms Race (which spawns such abominations as the White Chocolate-chip Raisin Bagel) is an illustration of the universal Law of Ongoing Bloat, which states that, a) greed must be served, but b) will never be satisfied. Only a bigger and more hideously adulterated bagel is acceptable to the greedy mind, and this bagel then drives all other aspects of civilization until that sad final day when the Ultimate Plutonium Bagel is accidentally dropped on the President’s toe at breakfast and we all disappear, screaming, into a discontinuum, some weird little crack in reality’s sidewalk.

Perhaps, however - just perhaps - we can avoid this sad fate if only more influential people like the President, the Reverend S. Y. Moon and Dennis Rodman learn more about the basic structure of the universe, by reading the following simplified primer.

1. The Origin of the Universe.

I like to think I'm one intellectual cut above the average cave dweller, and so it's not too unusual to find me curled up in an armchair, reading some exciting mathematical/philosophical/ astronomical tome whose author has nobly flung himself once more against the very gates of Heaven, seeking to explain the instant of creation itself, or at least say something about it that will make a guy like me buy his book. I'm too smart for that; I wait until I see it at a yard sale, or remaindered for two bucks. But alas - these geniuses inevitably come to a point where they can't explain themselves except by using a lot of brand-new symbols they just thought up for the occasion, and torturing the logical faculties of ordinary mortals with statements like: if a is not equal to a', and b is not equal to b', and “not equal” is defined as equal to all subsets of c less or more than d or, during lunar eclipses, d', THEN... And they triumphantly gallop off into a weird ever-receding landscape that Mandelbrot saw once in a mushroom nightmare, riding a cubist pony and holding high a banner with the strange device, QUOD ERAT DEMONSTRATUM; but I'm snoozing in the comfy chair, falling ever deeper into a delightful five-dimensional rabbit hole full of dancing pentangles, and everything seems so very clear, yes, even the long-lost key to that endless moment of fire that hung in the dark, when everything began to unfold; temperature meant nothing, yet they tell us anyway that it was 500 million degrees (Kelvin) or whatever. I love doing that, although I'd be just as enriched and enlightened if I drank beer and watched the football game.

Thusly I establish my intellectual credentials, even if Godel’s Eternal Golden Braid, or whatever he called it, is as far beyond me as trigonometry is beyond an ant. I can appreciate Leonardo’s Codex just as much as Bill Gates, though he may have the original sitting on his solid gold coffee table, stained with cappucino latte for all I know. And who among us, the miserable PC users of this world, has not said to himself, “I could have written a Disc Operating System one hell of a lot better than this garbage.”? Now, it’s a little-known fact that in science, Attitude is often just as potent as The Scientific Method when it comes to finally establishing the truth of something. So, vigorously employing the general attitude displayed above, I state the following:

a) The universe either “began” or it did not, and has never not existed.

b) The universe will either “end” or it will not, and will always exist.

c) We will almost certainly never “see” either event, no matter what telescopes we build.

d) To propose a definite “mechanism” for the origin of the universe is plain silly.

Notice, if you will, how quickly ordinary concepts decay in their meanings when asked to bear the burden of an infinite context.

2. Entropy

It was Yeats who famously tossed off the line, “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold,” and he struck a fatalistic chord on the world’s psyche - good old Captain Bringdown. Later he was vindicated by the codification of the various laws of thermodynamics, and everyone relaxed and had a beer or three. But why is this true? And if we just build a new centre, say, a few miles away in the new megamall, what difference does it make? Sure, I admit we will all end up as lonely atoms wandering untethered in space, like so many tetherballs whose tethers finally frayed and broke, and sent us rolling into a dark corner of the infinite playground, but, by my calculations we still have plenty of time to go get some pizza and red wine, and catch a movie.

I believe good ol’ Lao Tzu said it best more than two millennia ago: “Small country, few people.” I paid a real California channeler to get him on the astral horn and explain that annoyingly cryptic remark, and he was kind enough to translate it for me into modern buzzspeak idiotica: “Basically, Dave, there's a limit to the effectiveness of any system, however skillfully managed. Systems tend to bloat and complicate, and at a certain mysterious point the anti-synergism of excessive numbers of variables destroys their ability to produce their product, whatever it might be; and then the momentum of organization pushes the system over the line into decline and total failure, unless, of course, the controlling entity is able to downsize and simplify in a real snappy manner. It would be nice if things could be kept small, cozy and stable. And if pigs could fly you could send packages, a big improvement over pigeons - call it Pig-Ex/” I eventually had to hang up, he just wouldn't stop jabbering. Apparently there isn’t much to do on the astral plane once you’ve read all the books in the library a hundred times and sampled every dish in the cafeteria.

3. The Arrow of Time - careful! It’s sharp!

Another thing I’d like to clear up is this pesky cosmological constant thing, i.e. the arrow of time problem: why it always goes this-a-way but never back that-a-way, or any other weird direction. Well, it's simple, and you can pass this along to Mr. S. Hawking, free of charge: the reason time is a one-way street is because cause A always causes effect A', and the reason for that, smart guy, is because we say so. Our very thoughts about it instantly create the fourth dimension of perceived-cause-and-effect (time) and also the fifth dimension of intelligence/
stupidity/free will/love. Conduct, if you will, the following ‘thought experiment’. Imagine that consciousness never arose anywhere in the universe; all that exists is insensate matter moving about here and there in accordance with the dictates of the forces inherent to matter, such as interstate speed limits, postal regulations, and the like. Now: where is time? What possible meaning can the concept have without an observer to mark it? Of course, the experiment is bogus; we cannot imagine, with any cogency, our own non-existence, and the fifth dimension is beyond the reach of numerical description, being the very medium of our existence; the fish cannot analyze water, etc. Well I hope that reduces the constant stream of plaintive questions people direct to me here on Mount Olympus. (What is life, really? Why are the stars spread out in such a messy way like marbles dumped on the floor? Who's going to go get the beer?)

Copyright 2006 by David Warren Rockwell

Friday, April 07, 2006

The Unknown Knowns: Quagmire of Lies

"Drive all the way to Reno, on the wrong side of the road."

-Tom Waits

In the beginning there was the Word, but it was sluggish and lacked Context. When you’ve only got one Word it’s difficult to build meaning. Sometimes if I type too fast the clogged and muddy processor has to think a bit before it shows me what I have written. My thoughts are languishing momentarily in a limbo, their faults as yet unknown to the visible world. (This mechanical limbo resembles a tiny mud puddle, while the limbo of unrevealed and unrealized thought behind my forehead is more like the Pacific Ocean.) As for the invisible world, once called the id by Mr. S. Freud, more and more we seem to know that it resides not only in the tumbledown shacks and dirty cellars on the outskirts of consciousness, but in our machines themselves. Such essential mechanical elements of our world system such as software, the street layout of D.C. and the tax code, to name only a few, have outgrown our ability to entirely control or understand them, and they display a witty and willful wickedness in their mad proliferation.

Donald Rumsfeld has begun to elucidate a basic taxonomy or ontology of knowledge. There are the known knowns, the known unknowns, and the unknown unknowns. Presumably this is a tool of military analysis: we know the enemy has weapons; we know that we don’t know precisely what they are or how they are deployed, but we want to know those things and are actively seeking them out; and we also presume that there are things we don’t know that we should know, but we have no idea of where to start looking for them because we know nothing about them at all. This leaves out the fourth possibility, and the most difficult: the unknown knowns. These are things that we should know, and in fact do know, except that we have deliberately or accidentally hid or mislaid or denied or forgotten or disguised them, so that we are now in the territory of the false knowns, and every step takes us farther from actual knowledge. Some say the human species has been lost in this territory ever since the first Word was spoken, but I say, with others: no matter how far down the wrong road you have gone, turn back! Perhaps fatalism is the only true faith, but I reject it now and forever just on principle; I stand up and testify for the free mind and the unknown future, for these make me glad. No idea or image of Heaven has ever been able to make me want to trade away my front yard. The idea of a final and settled universe, the Eternal Reward, seems to me lifeless, an oil painting and nothing more. Even though the Tree of Knowledge has a huge dying limb with an infinite involution of complexity, full of rotting self-deceit, I am still willing to use my reason. I just wish everyone sitting on that limb would go straight to Heironymus Boschland when the limb falls off, and leave the rest of us in peace.

Ha! You reply heatedly: an oil painting can have a lot more life in it than most people. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Good luck falling in love with that marble bust of Helen. True, she don’t talk back and she stays faithfully on the pedestal. But the killing boredom! You’d be a lot happier with the widow next door, Edith, who like to polka and has that big old wart. So what if she’s been married seven times before?

But I digress. (And why the hell not?) There is no magic Word, Rummy. You’re an unusually straightforward guy, or so you seem. Think about the unknown knowns, and try to admit that mistakes, as they say, were made, and lies told. Otherwise we’ll be stuck in this mud until Kingdom Come or the next election, whichever comes first.

Copyright 2006 by David Warren Rockwell

Monday, April 03, 2006

Chomolungma Reveals All!

10/21/05 "Little darlin', I feel that ice is slowly melting..."

George Harrison, "Here Comes the Sun"

All over the world, that ice is melting. Satellite photography over the decades show polar ice shrinkage over the decades, clearly visible to the naked eye - and the naked eye is all we really trust. However incontrovertible this may be, it is nevertheless a bone of political contention, now that we no longer put our childlike trust in Science. Is global warming really the fault of our smelly, burgeoning species, or just a coincidental blip in the random wanderings of the goddess Gaia, or if you prefer, the magnificent planetary machine, that has maintained a nearly constant atmosphere for our pleasure for the past couple of billion years? We can't be completely certain, but we know for sure that those idiots on the other side of the aisle are dead wrong.

Be that as it may, the shrinking ice returns to us things that were lost, that we thought were lost forever, and we examine them with intense interest. Just the other day an airman returned from his crash site in the California mountains, where he had disappeared into thin air, as we like to say, in 1942. Not long ago the legendary disappeared mountaineer George Mallory reappeared on his home ground, the slopes of Everest, a.k.a. Chomolungma, Mother Goddess of the Snows, with gear and all, but without a clue as to whether he and Irving had reached the summit they so devoutly wish'd. And not long before that, of course, there was found the man in the Alps who had been there, encased in ice, with a spearpoint in his back for the last seven thousand years, waiting with infinite patience to tell us of his murder all those centuries ago. The ice gives us these objects, these mute clues, and we have to somehow decipher them; it is salubrious to our being to realize that the past is real, that we are standing on it, that we are built from the stuff, and therefore there is a thread of causation, if not of ultimate meaning, running though the whole monster maze, and we can follow it, at least for a short way.

Melting glaciers can be found metaphorically thoughout the world. For example, there is the crumbling of the longtime omertá of the Roman Catholic Church regarding the peccadillos of some percentage of priests who cannot be celibate and yet still wish to remain priests. This frees up thousands of victims to literally get hopping, screaming, suing mad. Along with the breaching of various rusting moral fortresses there are falling statues with feet of clay - the political theories that enabled and rationalized on a monstrous scale some of the worst tendencies of the human animal, viz. Lenin, Saddam Hussein, etc. Although Vladimir Putin pays lips service to democracy, he keeps his hidden hand on the machinery of absolute control, even as the basis of that control, which is the peoples' ignorance, fear and acquiescence, melts away faster every day. The Chinese Communist Party tries desperately to have its cake and eat it too, and have capitalism without democracy, but it is now too late to stuff the yowling Cat of Western Decadence back into the Blackout Bag of Repression - the people know that there is another kind of existence outside the Middle Kingdom, and they're intensely interested in what they see sticking out of the ice.

Will this gradual melting of ignorance and silence result in global peace, prosperity and a general Golden Age? Alas - we have some major problems that do not hinge on our politics, philosophy or morals; we must go back and trust pure science to find and tell us the truth, and then we must find the will to act on it. If we fail, at least we knew, for a while, what was actually emerging from the ice, before it started to close back in.