31 August 2015

Randomly different initial conditions

Modern cosmology involves the idea of quantum genesis — tracing back the cosmic expansion to an origin in a singularity where the space that now contains 100 billion galaxies was smaller than an atom. The inflationary scenario is an adjustment of standard big bang to include an extremely early phase of exponential expansion. The idea was developed to explain why the universe now is very smooth and geometrically flat. Inflation has tentative support from the nature of small temperature variations in cosmic background radiation. If inflation is correct, the universe began as quantum fluctuation. The precursor state would have been an ensemble of quantum fluctuations, perhaps infinite in number, each with randomly different initial conditions. Some of them inflated into large space-times like our own. Others were still born. This process can be timeless and eternal.
Beyond: Our Future in Space by Chris Impey (2015)

29 August 2015


There to the east, the sky now glowed. Though it was still dark where they were, indigo filled much of the eastern sky. Then the infusion of gold in the indigo strengthened in intensity, and the whole eastern sky turned a dark bronze, then a dark green; then it brightened, until a blackish green was shot with gold, and brightened again until it was infused with greenish black, or rather a mix or mesh of gold and black, shimmering like cloth of gold seen by twilight. An uncanny sight, clearly, as many of them cried out at it. 
Then the burden off on the eastern horizon lit up as if set on fire, and their cries grew louder than ever. It looked as if the great plateau were burning. This strange fiery dawn swept in vertically, like a gold curtain of light approaching from the east.  Overhead the charcoal circle of E winked on its westernmost point, a brilliant wink of fire that quickly spilled up and down the outer curve of the black circle. And so Tau Ceti reemerged, again very slowly, taking a bit over two hours...Gradually the sky turned the usual royal blue of Aurora's day...
Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson (2015)

28 August 2015


One might say that immensity is a philosophical category of daydream. Daydream undoubtedly feeds on all kinds of sights, but through a sort of natural inclination, it contemplates grandeur. And this contemplation produces an attitude that is so special, an inner state that is so unlike any other, that the daydream transports the dreamer outside the immediate world to a world that bears the mark of infinity.
The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard (1958) quoted in The Planet Remade by Oliver Morton (2015)

Photo by author

27 August 2015


The portal is one of the oldest literary motifs, a staple of metaphysical narratives for thousands of years: the gateway through which a hero passes into another world. I have come to believe that portals are mythic representations of these perceptual openings, fissures that allow us to see, though briefly and darkly, the ancient soul of humankind. To me, this ancient soul is the psychological equipment, abandoned but not absent, with which we once navigated a world where we were both hunters and hunted. To judge by my own fleeting experiences, the land beyond the portal is an enchanting, electrifying place, in which senses and sensations are tightened and stretched, tuned as at no other time to the inner and the outer life.
George Monbiot

Photo by author

26 August 2015

'The map is real...'

Suppose you have a city map. It’s definitely useful. Without it, you might never reach your goal. Is the map a perfect rendering of the city? No. There is no such thing as a two-dimensional, black-and-white city filled with perfectly straight paths and neat angles. But the city itself is real, the map is real, the information in it is mostly valid if simplified, and so the map is unquestionably of practical use. Knowing all this, you probably won’t suffer an existential crisis over the reality of the city or dismiss the contents or the existence of the map as an illusion. The truth is much simpler: your model of the city is helpful but not perfectly accurate.
Build a Brain - Is consciousness and engineering problem? Michael Graziano

Image: Eric Fisher

25 August 2015

'Even the light was different...'

Today I tried something. I’ve been thinking about what it must have been like out here before the change began, what the forest was like when there were still birds, so I called up a simulation in my overlays and walked out among the trees to listen. The noise was incredible. Birds shrieking and singing, things moving in the undergrowth. Even the light was different, thicker somehow, full of smoke and colour.
  Clade by James Bradley
Whooping, Nam throws his arms up in the air and twirls around, his street clothes disappearing, replaced in her overlays by one of his virtual creations, gorgeous feathered wings sprouting from his back, ribbons of light trailing from his hands and feet.

 Image via here

24 August 2015

Strange planets

Methuselah, an exoplanet 12,400 light years away, is three times older than the Earth. Since it was formed within a billion years of the big bang, it's surprising that stars had made enough heavy elements and 'grit' to form a planet. The star 55 Cancri has a super-Earth so hot and dense that a third of the surface is made of carbon crushed into a diamond-like state...GJ 504b is a Jupiter that's farther from its star than Neptune is from the Sun. Even though it's in the deep freeze, it glows a ruddy pink colour because it's shrinking due to gravity. At the other extreme, there's a planet that orbits in darkness around a pulsar, whipping around the stellar corpse every two hours. TrES-2B is a mysteriously dark planet, blacker than coal or ink, and it's not known what chemicals in its atmosphere cause it to absorb 99 per cent of the light falling on it. GJ 1214b is a water world that's completely swaddled in ocean ten times deeper than those on Earth.  Wasp 18b is falling onto its star as its orbit degrades. It will enter the final death spiral in just a million years.
Beyond: Our Future in Space by Chris Impey (2015)

Image: NASA

Inner ear

...Lemur and tree-shrew linger in the spine
becoming steps; a track worn in the grass; 
a moment’s pause
before the rain moves in.
from The Inner Ear by John Burnside

Image by author

20 August 2015

Constellations of ingenious machines

Earlier this month Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted the English names of some constellations in the skies of the southern hemisphere. They are 'geeky', having been formally named during the Industrial Revolution. They include:
Antlia, The Air Pump,
Telescopium, The Telescope
Pyxis, The Compass
Microscopium, The Microscope
Fornax, The Lab Furnace
Horologium, The Pendulum Clock

Octans, The Octant
Sextans,The Sextant
Reticulum, The Eyepiece Crosshairs

'Being wrong can be a wonderful thing'

Spiritual bravery is the willingness to go beyond what is traditionally perceived as “right| or “wrong” so as to discern the correct action at each moment…It means to live each moment by balancing head, heart and hand not by the day-to-day dogma that keeps you “in the right’, but being wiling to take the risk with each step that you may be wrong. Being wrong can be a wonderful thing. It’s learning. It’s growth. It is the kind of vulnerability that opens up the space of solidarity. It’s connection
Gehan Macleod of GalGael quoted by Alastair McIntosh and Matt Carmichael in Spiritual Activism

19 August 2015

Cloud city

If you [go] all the way to the top of Venus’s [hostile] atmosphere, you’re rewarded with — shockingly — pleasant, livable conditions. Randomly, at the top of Venus’s clouds is a layer where the temperature and pressure are similar to those on Earth, and because oxygen and nitrogen both rise in Venus’s dense atmosphere (like helium does on Earth), the air in that layer might actually be close to breathable. That’s led some scientists to actually discuss human colonization of Venus’s high atmosphere, building “cities designed to float at about fifty kilometer altitude in the atmosphere of Venus.”
Wait by Why Tim Urban
Suspended over the abyss, the life of Octavia's inhabitants is less uncertain than in other cities. They know the net will only last so long.
Invisible Cities Italo Calvino

Image NASA

18 August 2015

First snow

When she reached the top of the saddle between the two mountains it began to snow. Makina had never seen snow before and the first thing that struck her as she stopped to watch the weightless crystals raining down was that something was burning. One came to perch on her eyelashes; it looked like a stack of crosses or the map of a palace, a solid and intricate marvel at any rate, and when it dissolved a few seconds later she wondered how it was that some things in the world — some countries, some people — could seem eternal when everything was actually like that miniature ice place: one-of-a-kind, precious, fragile.
Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera

17 August 2015

'Matter with curiosity'

     For instance, I stand at the seashore, alone, and start to think. There are the rushing waves...mountains of molecules, each stupidly minding its own business...trillions apart...yet forming white surf in unison.
     Ages on ages...before any eye could see...year after year...thunderously pounding the shore as now. For whom, for what?...on a dead plant, with no life to entertain.
     Never at rest...tortured by energy...wasted prodigiously by the sun...poured into space. A mite makes the sea roar.
     Deep in the sea, all molecules repeat the patterns of one another until complex new ones are formed. They make others like themselves...and a new dance starts.
     Growing in size and complexity...living things, masses of atoms, DNA, protein...dancing a pattern ever more intricate.
     Out of the cradle onto dry land...here it is standing...atoms with consciousness...matter with curiosity.
     Stands at the sea...wonders at wondering...I...a universe of atoms...an atom in the universe.
from ‘The Value of Science’ in The Pleasure of Finding Things Out by Richard Feynman

Photo by author

14 August 2015

Light passes through light...

Light passes freely through light. Were that not true, the visual messages we receive from the world would be scrambled by scattering, and much more complicated to interpret. In QED, that basic fact makes good sense: photons respond to electric charge, but photons themselves are electrically neutral.
A Beautiful Question by Frank Wilczek (2015)

Photo by author

12 August 2015

'Multiple states of human consciousness'

Research suggests there are states of arousal that fall between conventionally categorized states such as sleep and waking, supporting [John Lilly's] intuition that there are multiple states of human consciousness we have yet to fully explore. In the 1990s, the discovery of the Default Mode Network, an interconnected archipelago of brain areas whose activity decreases when we are focused on a task and increases when we stop focusing, complicated the notion that brain areas are either “on” or “off,” in use or on hold.
from Postcards From the Edge of Consciousness by Meehan Crist

Photo by author

'Aspects of reality we cannot detect'

While researchers strive to figure out why vast data sets used to train algorithms do not reflect the reality they expected, others think the strange rules dreamed up by algorithms might be teaching us about aspects of reality that we can’t detect ourselves. 
After all...a flower will look good to both a human and a bee, but that doesn’t mean both creatures see the same thing. “When we look at that flower in the spectrum that its pollinator can see in, the pattern is totally different”...Even though a bee would find our color perception weird, and vice versa, neither species’ view is an illusion. Perhaps the strangeness of neural-net cognition will teach us something. Perhaps it will even delight us.
from Artificial Intelligence is already weirdly inhuman by David Berreby

Image from here. See also photographyoftheinvisibleworld

11 August 2015

A form of dawning horror

At the most we gaze...in wonder, a kind of wonder which in itself is a form of dawning horror, for somehow we know by instinct that outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins.
Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald

Image: Dresden, February 1945.  Via this.  See also these.

10 August 2015

Mind at Large

To be enlightened is to be aware, always, of total reality in its immanent otherness -- to be aware of it and yet to remain in a condition to survive as an animal and feel as a human being, to resort whenever expedient to systematic reasoning.
The Doors of Perception Aldous Huxley (1954)

Photo of shore of Loch Nevis by author

7 August 2015

The question concerning technology

Fantasies — or nightmares — [such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein] are just stimulants to your imagination. What we should take seriously is the idea that the next stage of history will not only include technological and organisational transformations, but also fundamental transformations in human consciousness and identity. And these could be transformations so fundamental that they will call the very term ‘human’ into question. How long do we have? No one really knows…Some say that by 2050 a few humans will already be a-mortal. Less radical forecasts speak of the next century, or the next millennium. Yet from the perspective of 70,000 years of [behaviourally modern humans] what are a few millennia?
Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari (2011)
Norbert Wiener and John von Neumann envisaged situations arising when thinking machines could cease to be either controllable or comprehensible by their makers. Implicitly, they recognised that machines would develop by natural selection -- process without purpose or direction.
The Soul of the Marionette by John Gray (2014)

Photo of sign at start of The Broomway by author

6 August 2015

"Never-ending signs and portents...a great inundation of the unforeseen"

In those far-off days our gang of boys first hit on the outlandish and impossible notion of straying even farther, beyond that inn, into no-man’s- or God’s-land, of patrolling borders both neutral and disputed, where boundary lines petered out and the compass rose of winds skittered erratically under a high arching sky. There we meant to dig in, raise ramparts around us, make ourselves independent of the grown-ups, pass completely out of the realm of their authority, proclaim the Republic of the Young…It was to be a life under the aegis of poetry and adventure, never-ending signs and portents. All we need to, or so it seemed to us, was push apart the barriers and limits of convention, the old markers imprisoning the course of human affairs, for our lives to be invaded by an elemental power, a great inundation of the unforeseen, a flood of romantic adventure and fabulous happenings…The spirit of nature was by its very essence a great storyteller. Out of its core the honeyed discourse of fables and novels, romances and epics, flowed in an irresistible stream. The whole atmosphere was absolutely stuffed with stories. You only needed to lay a trap under this sky full of ghosts to catch one, set a wooden post upright in the wind for strips of narrative to be caught fluttering on its tip.
from The Republic of Dreams by Bruno Schulz (1892-1942)

Image: ukrainetrek.com