Archive for the 'Science' Category


mingling in the multiverse: science, the infinite, & the sublime.



First of all, I’m no scientist, so all apologies if any of my scientific logic or resulting speculations are faulty.

Scientific American sent me a supplement on Parallel Universes the other day, and because of this supplement I have had an epiphany–physics and cosmology are terrifying. The article reminded me of Borges’ Library of Babel or Garden of Forking Paths (and according to Zachary Mason, author of Lost Books of the Odyssey, in an interview on BLDGBlog, Borges is a favorite of a “disproportionately many well-read scientists.”) Even accepting that science has become much more probabilistic in the 20th and 21st centuries, and that science and fiction have long had a mutually constructive relationship, it is stunning how much these descriptions of the multiverse are reminiscent of fiction and art concerned with the infinite or the sublime.

In this article I learned that we can assume space is “infinite (or at least sufficiently large) in size and almost uniformly filled with matter, as observations indicate.” According to the article, with these basic assumptions it is a small step to make the claim that “even the most unlikely events must take place somewhere,” which is to say everything that could possibly happen has happened somewhere in the infinite spread of space.

From there the article describes the various theories of the multiverse. The first has the multiple universes have been constituted and spread around by the big bang “with a degree of randomness, generating all possible arrangements with nonzero probability.” Since our universe is assumed to be typical, there is probably a high density of them in space, so they can say that your closest identical copy is about 10 to the 10 to the 28 meters away. In the space in between we could speculate that there are innumerable nearly identical copies. According to this theory we are, ourselves, a sort of book in the library of babel—an empty “box” with infinite permutations of content stretching out on every spatial axis toward infinity. I imagine a Borges story about an immortal man trying to find his exact double. Or a Nabokov story about a mortal man who tries to kill his double for the insurance money.

Another theory have each universe as a bubble floating in a nearly empty volume. Infinitely many other bubbles exist floating in this volume, in an infinite number of configurations, but have spread, “[nucleating] like raindrops in a cloud.” This volume they are floating in is expanding faster than the speed of light, so it is a cloud that is essentially infinitely large—we could travel at the speed of light forever and never reach another multiverse. We are alone in a void. Nietzsche would be thrilled.

A third is the quantum theory, in which “every conceivable way that the world could be (within the scope of quantum mechanics) corresponds to a different universe.” The die falls on all 6 sides. Another theory has even the laws of nature varying.

We can reason that these multiverses exist, but we can’t even begin to imagine them. These theories of the multiverses are, then, sublime. A sublime experience, as I read it in its most basic sense, is a reaction to the unimaginable that leads us to re-calibrate our awareness of our position in and relation to the space and time in which we are situated. Here we reason that there are multiverses, and it leads us to reconsider our position in the vastness of outer space. This reads as an intensely jacked-up version of that classic sublime experience in which a person looks up at the night sky and feels minuscule in comparison to the scope of the cosmos.

Whereas many theories of the sublime held that a thing must be aesthetic, or sensual, it’s clear to me in reading this piece that scientific thought (which few people would argue is remotely aesthetic) has tipped over another threshold into the sublime. In here there is probably an argument that could be made regarding the stubborn persistence of mind/body dualism. More fascinating to me, though, is that one might argue that science, with its habit of upsetting prevailing opinion, blind belief, and even itself, has always been an enterprise with intimate knowledge of the sublime.


On Sadness and The Brutal Rationality of the Modern Era

Last night I had trouble sleeping. After reading a bit of The Corrections and drifting off (go figure!), something, I don’t know what, shocked me awake and after that I was fully alert, though a little delirious. Listlessly scrolling through my netflix queue, I finally decided to watchIn The Realms of the Unreal, a documentary about Henry Darger,  one of the United States’ best known “outsider artists” and the author of the longest known single piece of writing in existence, standing at 15,000 pages.

In the Realms of the Unreal

How did he manage to write 15,000 pages and a sequel of 8,000 more? Darger lived an especially sad life and these stories were probably his escape–let the body work while the mind flees. As for his story: Henry’s sister was given up for adoption after his mother died in childbirth and for some years following he lived with his father who many speculate was probably a sad-sack a-hole who could barely take care of himself, never mind his son. He was then sent from public school to a hospital for the mentally “feeble.” After escaping from a state work farm requiring hard labor for long hours, he walked a few hundred miles back to Chicago, where he settled at age 17. He worked as a menial laborer for the rest of his life, most often living alone–winding gauze, washing dishes, standing and repeating the same blunting tasks for 14 hours a day.

In short, he had a classically dour, harsh, and storybook-cruel life. What I find the most fascinating is that his story was based around Chicago, which brings it into consonance with many of the other stories I’ve been reading lately: The Devil in the White City and Jimmy Corrigan. All three of these stories, in one way or another, touch on the story of an outsider (sad-sack or serial killer) standing on the edge of the future in the midwest, watching the 20th century gather steam.

The Devil in the White City explores the stunning architectural grandeur of the Chicago World’s Fair as parallel to the birth of a new american type: the serial killer. The spatial mastery of man is forced into comparison with an increasing divide between action and empathy as exemplified in the psychopath. Jimmy Corrigan is also set against the backdrop of Chicago’s World’s Fair. Both stories feature fatherless losers, men born into a childhood they could not navigate emotionally and thus could never quite leave.

Now, in my own imaginary, Chicago and the rest of the midwest stand as a symbol of the promise of modernity’s once-future that has since become the melancholy of the now-past and forever-present. It is a place of longing and loneliness, and to risk sounding cliche, it results from something brutal and monstrous in the grandeur of modernity. The visual style of Jimmy Corrigan is very evocative of this–it features small, simply-drawn figures standing in the foreground of large, complex public architecture. In fact, these figures are not so far off from those that director Jessica Yu uses to fill in the earlier portions of Darger’s story in her documentary–blueprints of institutions and rows after rows of hospital beds. It would seem that Darger’s stories were his Wonderland crafted in response to a world designed by Jeremy Bentham.

I think these stories have such resonance with us from where we stand because they register the psychic shock delivered by modern technology in the 20th century’s start, a shock we are still feeling as we continue to find our emotional lives steamrolled in new ways by the terse, abstract rationality of modern life. It is, for many intents and purposes, the record of struggles particular to our time.

They all work so well, measure this punch so smartly and delicately because in the era they are documenting, the punch is still in its infancy. Like Tacita Dean’s photographs of the closing Kodak factory, a dominant paradigm (whether an era, a form, a medium, or an idea) would seem to be at its most profoundly insightful and expressive when it is recording its own death, its own limits in the face of the neverending onrush of novelty. Here we have sorrowful representatives old era recording its death in the face of a technical and rational revolution.

Darger’s story hits so close to home, I believe, because it is about the subjugation of modern life to the unexpected results of our own technological mastery. So is The Devil in the White City. So is Jimmy Corrigan. It’s about the then-new emotional and psychic bruises left by the rational/emotional divide of modern progress. Which are, of course, bruises that we keep giving ourselves, and with which we continue to struggle.


magnets: this is how they f****** work

In the Insane Clown Posse’s recently released song “Miracles” you will find the lyrics

I’ve seen miracles all around me, stop and look around its all astounding, water, fire air and dirt, fucking magnets, how do they work?

Followed by

I don’t want to talk to a scientist, ya’ll motherfuckers lying and getting me pissed

If this was Tom Waits I might not be offended. But I’ll answer ICP’s question, not because they’ve asked it, but because I think there’s honest wonder and fascination in how magnets work and also because the best explanation you can get will come from a scientist.

The most common explanation has to do with the magnetic “fields” that some materials create by net effect of their composition – some significant portion of their atoms/molecules has an inherent magnetic property that is oriented along the same direction. Nearly all materials are magnetic, but in most objects the magnetic orientations are scrambled and cancel each other out. If you were to take to a few hundred one-inch magnets and throw them together you would likely end up with a lump that is much weaker magnetically than if you were to take the time to orient their poles along the same direction. In short, commonplace magnets display an effect that is the sum of many small magnetic dipoles which have an associated field – a property of space dependent upon proximity to the magnet.

Objects with magnetic charge will feel a force when placed in a magnetic field, a phenomenon that is easily studied and well understood. There is a tremendously accurate description, Maxwell’s laws, that relies on mathematics (involving things like potential energy and field gradients.) But honestly this is not the most complete description we have – for that you need to invoke quantum mechanics, due to the following reasons: The explanation for why atoms and molecules have a magnetic property involves angular momentum (orbital angular momentum and the inherent property called “spin”) and movement as defined by a probabilistic wave function, and that the minutiae of magnetic  fields are so-called “virtual particles.”

According to Quantum Mechanics and earlier theories, magnetic fields are created by moving electric charges, or perhaps with QM it’s better to say charges with energy, since “movement” in this case means something different than what we usually imagine. It also says that charges with angular momentum create magnetic fields. So take, for example, an electron bound in an atom. The electron has angular momentum and charge (neither of which are separable from the particle) and therefore it has a magnetic component. Electrons behave as if they contain a tiny magnet.

The second quantum component, virtual particles, is more abstract. Virtual particles are called virtual because they only have consequence for that which creates them (emits them) and that which absorbs them. If they had their own independent existence they would be normal matter and therefore bound to a different set of rules.  In order to create normal matter, for instance, you need to contribute energy on the amount of E = mc², but for virtual particles, which are components exchanged “under the table,” you don’t.  What is actually happening when magnets attract or repel each other, as best as we can tell, is an exchange of virtual photons – the same particles that constitute light.

Photons are massless particles but they still have energy in the form of momentum.  Quantum mechanics tells us that all particles have wavelength, but the more energy a particle has the shorter its wavelength. Since photons have so little energy (the least of any particle we know of) they have a long wavelength. Another way to say the same thing is that photons’ position is not well defined. A particle’s energy and wavelength also have bearing on how easily their virtual version can be exchanged, and therefore affect the affect the range of the force they represent.

Magnets work by an exchange of photons which never interact with anything in the interceding space . There is a near constant stream of these virtual photons occurring, which is also the same phenomenon responsible for our ability of sight, but that is ironically completely undetectable in situ. No magic or rainbows, and while you can’t hold the magnetism you can feel the effect on the magnet. I hope this explanation wasn’t too technical and abstract for all the juggalos and juggalettes out there, but I promise I’m not lying.


do with a guitar and a magnet

Using a guitar and a number of things to modify its sound (a tiny amp, an equalizer my father pulled off the curb in Ocean City, a netbook with a design flaw that delays the mic feed-through, and some magnets,) a few tries yielded this


Trying to clear out some space for consciousness in the land of quantum-determinist atheists

If you take a scientific and strictly reductionist view of the mind you might have an argument that looks similar to the following: All matter in the universe is governed by the same laws, the mind is composed of matter, the particles of which have properties we know a little about. The mind is a product of these behaviors: Πgi(xj) where i and j are all possible indices of particles and something like “quantum numbers,” respectively. Supposedly, with enough particles and quantum numbers you can account for the complexity of the world, but I think that many who take this view feel that it forbids things like the “soul” or “free will.”

This is completely reductionist, that any system can be broken down into the sum of its parts and their product can account for the behavior of the whole. This is a tenet of statistical mechanics/thermodynamics and serves as check for physics in general and also chemistry and biology, the next rungs on the scientific theory scale ladder. In regards to physics in particular this line of thinking mimics the plan of attack for basic quantum mechanics – that a system can be broken down and analyzed by assuming products of functions of independent variables.

But what if there are functions that cannot be separated in such a way? What if there are properties (functions) that have two particles as a domain – f(gi(xj), gi+1(xj))? In this case, you would have to examine both of the particles in the system in order to learn conclusively of the behavior of the property – you would have to examine the entirety of the system. This, however, is not how we explain objects.

Take a cup for example. I can tell you lots of things about it – its color, weight, topological properties. I can also examine a few of its particles. But if I am to claim I know all there is to know about the cup then I must also claim that I can extend things learned about the small part of the cup to the remainder of the parts of the cup. But I cannot make claims about properties of the cup that require more particles than I can examine – I can make guesses and see how they line up with experiments about the entirety (like weight?), but I can’t deduce these properties. So either all properties of the universe can be detected through some finite number of particles or there is no limit to the size of the domain of a property. The reductionist claim sounds like all properties are properties found through a single particle, or a single particle of each type.


A diagram for a music of the spheres.

///// In 3 (three) parts – making the universe sonorous, listening to space.


Part 1 – The movement of artistic sonic production from structured musical works toward sonic landscapes.

Aurora Musicalis – Brian Eno

An interview with Art Forum in which Brian Eno speaks about his invention of Ambient music and the making of sounds in the form of a landscape rather than the form of a musical piece.

Important quote

* “Classical music works around a body of “refined” sounds — sounds that are separate from the sounds of the world, pure and musical. There is a sharp distinction between “music” and “noise,” just as there is a distinction between the musician and the audience. I like blurring those distinctions — I like to work with all the complex sounds on the way out to the horizon, to pure noise, like the hum of London. If you sit in Hyde Park just far enough away from the traffic so that you don’t perceive any of its specific details, you just hear the average of the whole thing. And it’s such a beautiful sound.”


Part 2 – On the synaesthetic expressiveness of analog recording technologies.

Primal Sound – Rilke

A piece written by Rainer Maria Rilke on the potential of  recording logic to produce sound where there was none rather than re-produce it. (Also touched upon about a year ago here)

Important Quote

“What is it that repeatedly presents itself to my mind? It is this: The coronal suture of the skull (this would first have to be investigated) has–let us assume–a certain similarity to the closely wavy line which the needle of a phonograph engraves on the receiving, rotating cylinder of the apparatus. What if one changed the needle and directed it on its return journey along a tracing which was not derived from the graphic translation of a sound, but existed of itself naturally–well: to put it plainly, along the coronal suture, for example. What would happen?”


Part 3 – On making the planets sonorous.

NASA’s “Symphonies of the Planets”

Voyager recordings of the electromagnetic transmissions of various planets. Recorded, converted into sound and released. (Now out of print.)


Happy Birthday USA

It is the 4th of July. There is a coup in Honduras. Michael Jackson is dead. Sarah Palin quit.

Today is hot and thickly aired. Real unemployment is solidly entrenched in the double digits. Today is darkening. Please go outside and watch the fireworks and if you are lucky you might get a girl’s arm next to yours. Steve McNair was killed. Roger Federer is in another final and Tiger Woods is tied for the lead.

I learned that echidnas have cloacas and 4-headed penises.


May 2020