30 September 2015


Murray Shanahan finishes his book The Technological Singularity like this:
As I watch a wren through the kitchen window, clinging to a hawthorn bush, I hope that we never lose sight of the things we already have that still matter, whatever the future holds.
This sends me back to Birds Britannica by Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey, who quote Max Nicholson:
The wren cannot adequately be described as a bird of woodlands, gardens, field, moors, marshes, cliffs or wastelands — although it is all of these — but must be looked at rather as a bird of cervices and crannies, of stems and twigs and branches, of woodpiles and fallen trees, of hedge-bottoms and banks, walls and boulders, wherever these may occur. Wrens cut across, or rather scramble under, the imaginary boundaries we are accustomed to draw between different types of country.
Cocker and Mabey also quote Jeremy Mynott on the St Kilda wren:
The bird is surely the wild spirit of the place. After all it has been there some 5000 years, whereas human occupation is thought to have lasted a 1000 years. Its piercing song can already be heard from among the rocks as you first approach the islands by boat, even above the noise of crashing waves and the cries of a million seabirds. The wren seems elemental — a tiny persistent life in these desolate landscapes governed by the huge impersonal forces of wind, tide and weather.
Image: RSPB

29 September 2015

'On the edge of what we know...'

The heat of black holes is a quantum effect upon an object, the black hole, which is gravitational in nature. It is the individual quanta of space, the elementary grains of space, the vibrating 'molecules' that heat the surface of black holes and generate black hole heat. This phenomenon involves three sides of the problem: quantum mechanics, general relativity and thermal science. The heat of black holes is like the Rosetta Stone of physics, written in a combination of three languages — Quantum, Gravitational and Thermodynamic — still awaiting decipherment in order to reveal the true nature of time.
Carlo Rovelli

Image via wikipedia

27 September 2015

An augmented future

I think [genetic] augmentation will actually increase diversity. 
Some of it will be driven by need or ambition. People who want to go to space may want super-strong bones to protect them from osteoporosis in low gravity, while people who go to live at the bottom of the ocean will want a different set of modifications. And people who want to be super bankers are probably going to want a different set than the people who want to be super athletes. There isn’t a best kind of human, just like there isn’t a best kind of car. 
If you’re going to worry – which I do all the time – I would worry about adult augmentation, because it will spread fast. If I were to augment a child, an embryo, it will take 20 years before they have any significant impact on society.
George Church

Image via pinterest

25 September 2015

Miracle enough

My wife and I spend summers on a small island in Maine, far from any town. At night, the skies are quite dark. Sometimes, when there is no wind blowing and the tidal flow is small and the ocean is very still, I can see the reflection of the stars in the water near our dock. At such moments, the water looks like a dark carpet with a million tiny sparkles of light, which gently bob and ripple with each passing wave. Even though I know all the science, I am totally mesmerized and awed. For me, that is miracle enough.
Splitting the Moon Alan Lightman

23 September 2015

Varieties of Wonder

I recently took part in a panel discussion titled Varieties of Wonder. The script for my opening comments is here.

Image of Balinese masks by Gunawan Kartapranata

21 September 2015

'A vacuum is never really empty'

In... quantum field theory, a vacuum is never really empty... It is an arena in which quantum fluctuations produce evanescent energies and elementary particles. 
These short-lived phenomena might seem to be a ghostly form of reality. But they do have measurable effects, including electromagnetic ones. That’s because these fleeting excitations of the quantum vacuum appear as pairs of particles and antiparticles with equal and opposite electric charge, such as electrons and positrons. An electric field applied to the vacuum distorts these pairs to produce an electric response, and a magnetic field affects them to create a magnetic response. This behaviour gives us a way to calculate, not just measure, the electromagnetic properties of the quantum vacuum and, from them, to derive the value of c.
Why is light so fast? Sydney Perkowitz

Black Square by Kazimir Malevitch. Tate

20 September 2015

'Multifarious descriptions of many things'

We don’t need an answer to the question of life’s meaning, just as we don’t need a theory of everything. What we need are multifarious descriptions of many things, further descriptions of phenomena that change the aspect under which they are seen, that light them up and let us see them anew. 
There is no theory of everything Simon Critchley

Image: Seascape study with raincloud by John Constable

18 September 2015

Not death

This image of Pluto from the New Horizons mission brings the following to mind:
The whole landscape, as far as the eye can reach, is a realisation of a fearful dream of desolation and lifelessness — not a dream of death, for that implies evidence of pre-existing life, but a vision of a world upon which the light of life has never dawned.
The words are from The Moon Considered as a Planet, a World, and a Satellite by James Nasmyth and James Carpenter, 1874

Image: NASA

15 September 2015

A rope over an abyss

The largest, and most provocative sense in which a technological singularity might be an existential opportunity can only be grasped by stepping outside the human perspective altogether and adopting a more cosmological point of view. It is surely the height of anthropocentric thinking to suppose that the story of matter in this corner of the universe climaxes with human society and the myriad living brains [sic] embedded in it, marvellous as they are.  Perhaps matter still has a long way to go on the scale of complexity. Perhaps there are forms of consciousness yet to arise that are, in some sense, superior to our own. Should we recoil from this prospect, or rejoice in it? Can we ever make sense of such an idea?
The Technological Singularity Murray Shanahan (2015)

Image: recreation of figure from Triadic Ballet via pinterest

13 September 2015

Awumbuk, Basorexia, and a cognitive passion

Judging by this extract, The Book of Human Emotions by Tiffany Watt-Smith looks like a lot of fun. Whose does not feel better for learning about Awumbuk is the feeling of emptiness after guests depart and Basorexia is the sudden urge to kiss someone? But the section on wonder seems off kilter. Watt-Smitth writes:
With its bewilderment, fear and dazed submission, wonder was thought such an important human experience for God-fearing scholars that when RenĂ© Descartes made his inventory of the six “primitive passions” in 1649, he gave wonder top billing.
For Descartes, however, wonder was not about bewilderment, fear or dazed submission.  See this by Lorraine Daston:
“Wonder,” Descartes wrote, “is a sudden surprise of the soul,” reserved for what is rare and extraordinary. In his classification, it is the first of the passions, the only one unaccompanied by fluttering pulse or pounding heart. Disinterested but not indifferent, wonder is a cool passion that fixes on objects for what they are, instead of what they are for us. The wonder of wonder consists in the paradox of a cognitive passion: it has all the force of other passions like love or hate, but it helps rather than hinders reason. It is the passion aroused by anomalies, and the anomaly among the passions.
Watt-Smith continues:
In the centuries that followed people have tried to reinvest wonder with the cultural authority it once had...But for most today, curiosity, with its urgent need to discover and explain, has eclipsed slack-jawed wonder as an appropriate emotion.
I'd don't doubt the value of curiosity, but I don't think wonder has lost its 'cultural authority.' Here's John Herschel:
Accustomed to trace the operation of general causes, and the exemplification of general laws, in circumstances where the uninformed and uninquiring eye perceives neither novelty nor beauty, [the scientist] walks in the midst of wonders: every object which falls in his way elucidates some principle, affords some instruction, and impresses him with a sense of harmony and order.

12 September 2015

'The fixing of the universal light into luminous bodies'

Dining at Mr. Pepys's, Dr. Slayer showed us an experiment of a wonderful nature, pouring first a very cold liquor into a glass, and superfusing on it another, to appearance cold and clear liquor also; it first produced a white cloud, then boiling, divers coruscations and actual flames of fire mingled with the liquor, which being a little shaken together, fixed divers suns and stars of real fire, perfectly globular, on the sides of the glass, and which there stuck like so many constellations, burning most vehemently, and resembling stars and heavenly bodies, and that for a long space. It seemed to exhibit a theory of the eduction of light out of the chaos, and the fixing or gathering of the universal light into luminous bodies. This matter, or phosphorus, was made out of human blood and urine, elucidating the vital flame, or heat in animal bodies. A very noble experiment!
Diary of John Evelyn, December 13, 1685

10 September 2015

'Not solely areas for human invention'

We tend to think of places like the Arctic, the Antarctic, the Gobi, the Sahara, the Mojave, as primitive but there are in fact no primitive or even primeval landscapes. Neither are there permanent landscapes. And nowhere is the land empty or underdeveloped. It cannot be improved upon with technological assistance. The land, an animal that contains other animals, is vigorous and alive. The challenge to us, when we address the land, is to join with cosmologists in their ideas of continuous creation, and with physicist with their ideas of spatial and temporal paradox, to see the subtle grace and mutability of landscapes. They are crucibles of mystery, precisely like the smaller ones that they contain -- the arctic fox, the dwarf birch, the pi-meson; and larger ones that contain them, side by side with such seemingly immutable objects as the Horsehead Nebula in Orion. They are not solely areas for human invention. 
Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez (1986)

Photo: Residual Bitumen, Suncor South Tailings Pond, Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada.  From Beautiful Destruction by Louis Helbig.

7 September 2015

'Carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of science itself'

If the labours of Men of science should ever create any material revolution, direct or indirect, in our condition, and in the impressions which we habitually receive, the Poet will sleep then no more than at present; he will be ready to follow the steps of the Man of science, not only in those general indirect effects, but he will be at his side, carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of the science itself. The remotest discoveries of the Chemist, the Botanist, or Mineralogist, will be as proper objects of the Poet’s art as any upon which it can be employed, if the time should ever come when these things shall be familiar to us, and the relations under which they are contemplated by the followers of these respective sciences shall be manifestly and palpably material to us as enjoying and suffering beings. If the time should ever come when what is now called science, thus familiarized to men, shall be ready to put on, as it were, a form of flesh and blood, the Poet will lend his divine spirit to aid the transfiguration, and will welcome the Being thus produced, as a dear and genuine inmate of the household of man.
Preface to the Lyrical Ballads (1800), quoted in Pandaemonium by Humphrey Jennings

Image: blueprint for the Analytical Engine (1838)

5 September 2015

4 September 2015

'Love is a kind of giving of attention'

We think now that love is a kind of giving of attention. It is usually attention given to some other consciousness but not always. The attention can be to something unconscious even inanimate. But the attention seems often to be called out by a fellow consciousness. Something about it compels attention and rewards attention. That attention is what we call love. Affection, esteem, a passionate caring. At that point the consciousness that is feeling the love has the universe organised for it as if by a kind of polarisation. Then the giving is the getting. The feeling of attentiveness itself is an immediate reward. One gives.
Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson (2015)

1 September 2015

In time of permawar

So you are a reader, a writer, in this, the time of the permawar, searching, among other things, for empathy, for transcendence, for encounters that need not divide us into clans, for stories that can be told around a campfire generous enough for 7 billion, stories that transcend divisions, question the self and the boundaries of groups, stories that are a shared endeavour not at the level of the tribe, but of the human, that remind us we are not adversaries, we are in it together, the great mass murderer, Death, has us all in its sights, and we would do well not to allow ourselves willingly to be its instruments, but instead to recognise one another with compassion, not as predatory cannibals, but as meals for the same shark, each with a limited, precious time to abide, a time that deserves our respect and our wonder, a time that is a story, each of us a story, each of them a story, and each of these other stories, quite possibly, just as unique, just as frightened, as tiny, as vast, as made up as our own.
Mohsin Hamid

Image via here