Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘Einstein’

Sunday repost: “Two truths approach each other…”

In Creativity, Life, Reading, The Examined Life, Wisdom, Writing on January 13, 2013 at 6:00 am

Books at Tempo De Lari, Peru, D. Bruns, 2006

I recently read of a woman who spends her entire waking hours reading. Apparently she is a woman of means, or perhaps a woman of no means, like my homeless friend Lonnie. Her’s is a case of the extreme in one direction or the other. Regardless, she apparently indulges her singular obsession to the fullest. I am reminded of Einstein who said, “Any man [or woman] who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.”

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I’ve been gripped by obsessions all my life. I seek them out. It’s not worth doing a thing if not to do it obsessively–that is a tag line hung on my life by an observant friend. Yet this woman’s reading obsession troubles me.

A passage from a Tomas Tranströmer poem might illuminate my concern:

Two truths approach each other / One comes from without–and where they meet you have the chance / To catch a look at yourself.

Reading is the richest supplement to life I know. Yet it does not replace life. It can be the truth which “comes from without” but the magic of catching that “look at yourself” comes at the intersection with the second truth, life. That is, of course, the trouble with obsession. It crowds life. I know this to be true.

* * *

Yet, how is a worthy thing to be accomplished without it?

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Habits of learning.

In Books, Curiosity, Life, Reading, Science, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas on January 11, 2013 at 6:00 am

There are many subjects discussed here at “…the house…” It’s an eclectic place. Commenting on this, a friend recently asked about my habits of learning. I thought I’d take a moment and talk about that. I wrote about the habits of reader-writers yesterday. This makes for a natural, albeit tangential, elaboration.

As I’ve said previously, I’m an autodidact. That is, I learn best on my own and without specific direction from others. (Ray Bradbury is a best-case example of an autodidact. A recent post on Bradbury, among other things, can be found here.) College showed me what to be interested in, pointed me in a direction. I took over from there. Through the years I have wished for a mentor, a guide, someone to help me in my intellectual pursuits; but that never happened and is not likely to happen now. Consequently, an evolution of learning resulted, a fashion of making my own way. It is simple and boils down to this: biography and original sources.

Let’s start with biography, and since we recently talked a bit about quantum physics, perhaps we will begin there.

Many years ago I came to better appreciate how modern physics was redefining our understanding of the physical world, but I had little understanding of the work being done. Where to begin? Abstraction is booksdifficult for me. I need the hook of personality to guide my quest. Ergo, biography. Want to learn something? Begin with the lives of those who discovered/practiced/exercised the discipline. I began learning about physics by reading Denis Brian’s biography, Einstein: A Life. More properly, I began learning about the life of Einstein.

The book set the stage, but it was only the beginning. I came to learn from my reading that the good professor was at the sunset of work being done in traditional Newtonian physics. With that (new)98685 knowledge, I moved to modern physics with the brilliant award-winning biography, Genius, The Life and Times of Richard Feynman, by James Gleick. I was starting to settle in, getting traction, and knew that one life still had to be explored: Robert Oppenheimer. I turned to the definitive book, Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

71JUG2TW19LI will resist the urge to riff on these books. They get me excited. I cannot over recommend them. (Though Walter Isaacson’s biography of Einstein is the one to read now.)

With this work done, I was equipped to move to the next phase: original sources. However, I could not read original sources. I am mathematically illiterate. So, where to turn? I read books for the lay person. (Fortunately, too, I have a physicist in the family. Advice: find an expert.) But still, I gave a selection of the original sources a go and found the good Doctor Einstein’s book, Relativity, The Special and General Theory, to be surprisingly accessible (if you ignore the math). File:The_pleasure_of_finding_things_outMany of Feynman’s books are written for the layperson. (Start with The Pleasure of Finding Things Out–not physics, per se, but wonderful thoughts on leaning and curiosity.) The point being, without the biographies I would not have asked the right questions, read the right supplemental books, discovered the correct sources. By the end of the process–I probably invested two year’s reading–I was confident that I knew what I needed and wanted to know.

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I share this to perhaps help you on your quest, whatever that might be. I’ve read a lot of books and hope to read many more. If you’re a life-long learner perhaps you’ve got your own technique. I share mine to show how one person does it. Maybe you have a technique you think I would appreciate. Please share. We’re all pilgrims on this journey.

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Lastly:

Our schools teach from secondary and tertiary sources. This is a pity. Original thinkers shared. They wrote books to be read. My personal admonition: Do the homework, go to the source–and, for me, prepare for the source material; that is, read the biographies.

Thanks for reading,

d

Of this we can be uncertain.

In Curiosity, Life, Philosophy, Science, The infinity of ideas, Thinkers on January 9, 2013 at 6:00 am

“House” member, kvnpete, put a question to me that, I think, everyone might appreciate. The question, a good one, a big one, warrants a larger canvas than just a “comment.”

Here’s what kvnpete asked (I took the liberty to link a few references mentioned, should one wish to pursue further):

“You mention things like the Geodetic Effect and I am wondering if you ever read anything by Roger Penrose? Besides being in the same class as a Stephen Hawking, his most recent book, The Road to Reality, is a physics book that I think that is supposed to be really worth a look, more philosophical than pure science. Penrose always holds some interesting views on the inflationary universe and the human consciousness that may sometimes be unpopular and unproven but there maybe is something there. I haven’t seen The Road to Reality myself; I understand it is more of a project than anything else, but one worth undertaking. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t know the first thing about quantum mechanics except that is two words and not one and I’m not suggesting Penrose is writer that compares to the authors you often mention; but that is apples and oranges. Also quantum mechanics just doesn’t seem to be the most practical topic and maybe more of a religion in the way that it is only discussed by others in the congregation who read the relevant books; but do you think it holds anything that is more than just math equations and physics, and if it does, what is it’s place in all of this? Thanks”

Thanks for the question, kvnpete. Damn, we are a smart and good-looking bunch, aren’t we? The reviewer at The Guardian wrote of Penrose’s bookFile:The_Road_to_Reality (2006), The Road to Reality: “…if you are at all interested in different sizes of infinity, or different dimensions, or quantum particles, the thermodynamic legacy of the Big Bang, then here is chapter and verse, at least until matters are sorted out by a grand unified theory once and for all. You can skate over the equations and let the more comprehensible assertions, or the more stimulating questions, lodge themselves in your mind and assume the character of poetry.” So let’s set Penrose (a Platonist, Penrose has written, “I imagine that whenever the mind perceives a mathematical idea it makes contact with Plato’s world of mathematical concepts.”) and his soon-to-be-procured book aside and get to the meat of the matter, the only mouthful I can attempt to chew–and that is kvnpete’s question, “quantum mechanics…what is its place in all of this?” Great question!

By “all of this” I suspect you’re referring to the big stuff, the universe and our place in it, the meaning and implication of that, and so on. Here’s the little bit I know and what I deem to be the import of that information.

Einstein originally built a fudge-factor into his Theory of Special Relativity. His calculations indicated that the universe was expanding–this was pre-“Big Bang” theory–and he couldn’t accept the fact that the universe was not constant and secure. Later it was demonstrated that, indeed, his initial calculations were correct, that the universe was on the move. In the timeline of things, this was the beginning of the new physics (quantum) and the diminution of the old physics. Like Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton before him, Einstein thought the universe was eternal and unchanging. From the philosophical side of things, Bertrand Russell summed it up: “I should say that the universe is just there, and that is all.” But change was afoot. Feeling the ground shifting under his feet, Einstein famously quipped, “God does not play dice with the universe.”

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The Uncertainty Principal

Personally, the question settled on me heaviest when I happened upon Heisenberg‘s Uncertainty Principal. I was not alone in this and committed, like so many other lay people, all sorts of intellectual sins as a result of my limited understanding. In summary, Heisenberg (1901-1976) discovered that you cannot simultaneously know the location and the speed of a sub-atomic particle. The big hook here was the notion that observation changes the outcome. You can observe the speed of the particle, but that changes its location. You can observe the location of a particle, but that changes its speed. This is of course, sub-atomic stuff we’re talking about, but to the casual, philosophically-inclined, thinker, this was a very big deal. Imagine: the fashion in which we interact with the world, changes the reality of it. At least that was the simplistic conclusion I came to–I said I commented sins. (Oh, forgive me father, for I have made unwarranted philosophical leaps.)

To continue our journey down the history of an idea: The general sense of things is/was that the old guard was losing the battle to explain the universe, and by implication, our place in it. The new quantum guard was painting a picture of chaos and change at every physical level. Philosophically the foundation was being laid that the quest to find meaning in the universe was, at best, absurd.

“…to hope in the possibility of help, not to speak of help by virtue of the absurd, that for God all things are possible – no, that he will not do. And as for seeking help from any other – no, that he will not do for all the world…” ~ Kierkegaard

File:Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard, patron saint of the absurd.

As I’ve said before, I subscribe to Camus‘s notion that one is responsible for creating meaning in existence–it will not come from outside, not from the universe, not from a super-natural being, or a cosmic vibe. (The only cosmic vibe is the repeated echo of the Big Bang. Back in the days of analogue TV, you could tune your television to that fuzzy spot between channels and listen to the resounding pulsing static of the Big Bang.) This position, the place of the absurd, was not conceivable before the modern physicists showed up. It was hinted at–God is Dead, said Nietzsche–but did not carry the weight of physical reality until the math was done.

There is much to be made of all this, and many have gone there to do so–are still going there, even as our understanding of the physical world continues to change.

I find great freedom and energy as a result of this (post-modern) position. (A recent Times Magazine article included this sentence: “[the] atheist is free to concentrate on the fate of this world.”) Freethinkers everywhere have a legitimate claim, even a responsibility, to make of existence what they can. It will not come from a church, a god, a cosmos, “an other.” We must pray at the altar of the absurd and practice the religion of chaos. We are alone, but for the effort to be otherwise. And it is the effort that counts.

And that, dear kvnpete, is what I make of quantum physic’s place in all of this.” Thanks for the outstanding question.

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So sorry to have carried on like this. If you stayed the course, thank you. If you bailed, I understand. Perhaps next time we can simply talk about dogs and walks in the woods.

Thanks for reading,

D

Gravity Probe B, the wisdom of dogs, and other notions.

In Dogs, Life, Nature, Philosophy, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas, Thinkers on January 5, 2013 at 6:00 am
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Gravity Probe B

Einstein (1879-1955) was vindicated about seven years ago. That was when Gravity Probe B, one of Nasa’s satellites, confirmed “to a precision of better than 1 per cent the assertion Einstein made 90 years ago – that an object such as the Earth does indeed distort the fabric of space and time.” (NASA) Imagine a tarp stretched tight, suspended with bungee cords; then imagine dropping a basketball on the tarp. The tarp will sag under the ball and eventually it will come to rest in the middle of the tarp. Drop a marble on the tarp and it will speed to the basketball. This is called the Geodetic Effect and is what Einstein predicted happens with space and time. The basketball represents gravity, as a planet might manifest; the sagging tarp the fabric of space-time. Indeed, time and space bend.

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Despite the assertion fronted by certain family members (you know who you are), I do not believe (entirely) that the gravity of my existence bends my environmental reality. But…

As my parents warned, life (read: time) appears to be accelerating. Years come and go–flash, bang, and suddenly another day has passed, a year escaped, a decade expired before I can blink my eyes. The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus (535 – c. 475 BCE) famously said, “No man [or woman, presumably] ever steps in the same river twice.” His work, On Nature, does not survive, and everything we know about him we glean from fragments mentioned by other philosophers, principally Diogenes and Plato (who gives us the “river” metaphor). We must be thankful for that, at least.

The flow of existence feels (to me) to be bending time. The older I get the more the bend. The basketball seems to rest deeper into the tarp. Have you ever stood in a river when upstream water is released from a dam? I have. You don’t realize the water flow is increasing until the rush of it is hard upon you. That is aging–we are clueless until it’s mid-thigh and rising, our feet searching for traction. (I realize I’m mixing metaphors here, but hang with me a moment more.)

How does one broach this rushing tide? I turn to the lessons of my dogs. The best of them, those most seemingly, most excitedly alive, existed nose to the ground, curiosity aroused, a trot along the line, working the margins of the harvest. A dog lives a life without shadow; it is a being fully aware, running in the brilliant high-noon sun. Humans cast a shadow and we call it consciousness. Like biography it cannot be escaped. It is the ransom that cannot be paid.

The gist: It seems that the less I am aware of things, the faster the flow. Contrariwise, my dogs appear aware of most everything and completely and totally ignorant of  the bending basketball-gravity of existence.

Here are the things I’m not talking about: transcendence, enlightenment, spiritualism, mysticism, metaphysics, immortality, and all the other limp and ill-fitting clothes we’ve donned over the ages. And what I am talking about? I’ll let you know as soon as Lucy wakes from her nap. We’ll discuss it on our walk.