Honors And Fame

I’ve mentioned a few times on here that I’m now attending Missouri University of Science and Technology, working toward getting involved in various scientific research endeavors.  I was with some of the students and they asked me about my grades this semester.  I hesitated, and then told them how I did in my classes.  I had very high scores in all my classes – near perfect.  One of them looked at me and said, “Show off.”  I found it bizarre because first of all they asked me, I didn’t ask them, and second of all, I didn’t do well in my classes to “show off” to them.  I study and learn for the pleasure of finding things out, just like Richard Feynman did.

My life can be summarized in one of his quotations,

“Know how to solve every problem that has been solved.”
– Richard Feynman

One student cornered me after a class and went on and on about how boring the lecture was and how glad he was that class was over.  I didn’t say anything, but I had personally enjoyed the lecture as it had been one of the more interesting, “above and beyond” the textbook lectures.

The times I didn’t enjoy school were when I already knew everything being taught to me, or was forced to mindlessly memorize pedantic facts which aren’t very valuable to know.   It wasn’t that I don’t enjoy the material, it was simply that it was too simple for me and I needed to be in a more difficult class, but I was not allowed to test out.  Most of the material I had studied on my own before even entering college.

It has been a long time since I’ve been in school, as I graduated back in 2001.  It’s been nearly a decade for me since I’ve been in a school environment.  Being around the younger students reminds me of those old days.  I remember back in high school my Calculus teacher kept hassling me about joining the National Honors Society (NHS).  “It will look good when you apply for to a university.”  … “Ok, ok.  I’ll join NHS.”  It was an interesting experience to say the least.

Basically to be a member of the National Honors Society at my high school meant that you came to school an hour early and sat in Mrs. Wilkerson’s room.  She would give a quick announcement and then you’d sit there for an hour, doing nothing.  I raised my hand and asked what we actually did in National Honors Society.  She told me that there’d be a day toward the end of the year when we’d go paint park benches, but as for the rest of the year, it was basically just all of us meeting in that classroom each morning for an hour.  I then replied, “So we don’t actually do anything?”  Nope, nothing of any importance.

I remember attending the first meeting and seeing one of the star students in my graduating class, who always went on and on about how she was going to Stanford.  There was another student who always talked about Harvard, Harvard, Harvard.  I attended two meetings and then decided that I’d much rather get another hour of sleep each morning than be a part of such a worthless organization.   My teachers hassled me for the next couple of weeks to attend my meetings and then eventually they gave up.  I was obviously an incorrigible, rebellious student.  Richard Feynman seemed to feel the same way about awards and honors.  He didn’t even seem to care about the Nobel Prize which he won in Physics.  It was funny to hear him relate the same exact experience from his high school days.

From what I can gather, the most intelligent people who have ever lived have never sought fame or awards, nor cared about them when they received them.   Their passion and interest in what they did is what drove them.

The true value of a human being is determined primarily by the measure and the sense in which he has attained to liberation from the self.
– Albert Einstein, The World As I See It

It is strange to be known so universally and yet to be so lonely.
– Albert Einstein

Once you can accept the universe as matter expanding into nothing that is something, wearing stripes with plaid comes easy.
– Albert Einstein

When I rummage in my own mind I find no noble sentiments about being companions and equals and influencing the world to higher ends.  I find myself saying briefly and prosaically that it is much more important to be oneself than anything else.  Do not dream of influencing other people, I would say, if I knew how to make it sound exalted.  Think of things in themselves.
– Virginia Woolf, A Room Of One’s Own

What is fame? The advantage of being known by people of whom you yourself know nothing, and for whom you care as little.
– Lord Byron

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

– Robert Frost

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe.  If you try it, you will often be lonely, and sometimes frightened.  But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.
– Fredrich Nietzsche

I could go on and on, quoting various authors and philosophers.   I see a common thread among all of them – be an individual and pursue things for the joy of the things in and of themselves.  They say to lose yourself in what you do.  They also stress the development of interests in this world.  To immerse yourself in this world.  To connect with it.  There’s a quotation from Bertrand Russell which I’ve always loved,

“The secret to happiness is this: let your interests be as wide as possible, and let your reactions to the things and persons that interest you be as far as possible friendly rather than hostile.”
– Bertrand Russell

I also notice that everyone wants to be the next guru, sage, or genius.  They want to be the voice that helps guide the next generation.  I also get tired of hearing about “leadership”.  Even on my first week joining the university, they kept talking about developing leadership, being the leaders of tomorrow, and so on.  I hate all that stuff.  There’s nothing wrong with following or being a normal member of an organization.  Somebody has to work the fields.

I was greatly influenced by one of my physics professors, who started talking about research pursuits that are available.  He talked about how the great geniuses in the past worked all the time on mundane experiments such as measuring the specific heats of various metals.  He talked about Rutherford and others.  Nowadays he told me that that sort of research is unpopular with students.  Everyone wants to be the next Einstein, and the smartest people no longer do the “mundane” work that needs to be done.  He went to do an experiment in his cloud chamber and used various materials to do a test.  He looked up that material’s properties in a new publication and the scientists guaranteed an error of 5%.  When my professor did his experiments he had an error of over 50% – so big that his results were hosed.  Nobody wants to do observations and grunt work which needs to be done.  Everyone seeks fame, and far less progress is happening in our society.

And when it comes to giving and helping others, one of my favorite quotations comes from Henry David Thoreau in his book Civil Disobedience,

“He who gives himself entirely to his fellow men appears to them useless and selfish; but he who gives himself partially to them is pronounced a benefactor and philanthropist.”
– Henry David Thoreau

I believe that the men and women who have the greatest impact on the world for the better are unknown and do good deeds without asking for any recognition.  Jesus said it best,

“But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth”
– Jesus Christ, Matthew 6:3

Light Fantastic

I just watched a four hour BBC documentary about light.  The BBC makes some amazing television programs.  When I watch films like this, I’m completely inspired.  Right after it was over, I grabbed my physics and visual cognition books off the shelves and will be studying all night long.  Surely I can’t be the only one.  🙂

The series ends with the weird nature of light and how Einstein’s relativity led to very weird conceptions of space and time.  Einstein showed that humanity’s intuitive conceptions of both time and space are wrong.  I end up jumping out of my seat and think, “It’s time to figure this out!”  What could possibly be more fascinating?  Time, space, the universe, the beginning and fate of everything, the nature into how our mind works… I love it.  This series is amazing.  If you want to watch all of it, right click on the video and click ‘Watch on Youtube’, and then go to the user’s channel.  You’ll find the entire Light Fantastic series there, broken into ten minute videos.

And if you think the idea of curved space-time is too weird to believe in, well, I share the opinion of Richard Feynman in this next video.

Yesterday I was writing a little about truth.  These days I don’t think much about philosophical inquiries into “truth”, which I think amounts to linguistic meandering.  The universe is.  I’ve spent far too many hours with philosophers like Hegel, and Heidegger, and Hume, thinking about the nature of human knowledge and truth, struggling to understand their pedantic quibbling over what truth and knowledge are.  I eventually got frustrated and nowadays I hold a much simpler ideology.  Feynman here explains how scientists come to knowledge and truth about our universe.  Nowadays I don’t like to idly reflect on definitions and sit back in my armchair speculating.  I want to actively engage with the world, constantly inquiring, constantly testing, constantly researching, digging out the truths of this world.  I think the universe is likely infinite, therefore there are an infinite number of truths, and there is no universal principle, idea, or law which can describe everything.  There are always laws which can be broader and include more things, but you can’t put boundaries on something that’s infinite.

And as for absolute truth, I don’t think any man has that kind of knowledge.  The pursuit of truth is more akin to falling down Lewis Carroll’s rabbit hole.  The deeper you go, the weirder it gets.  I don’t think the “deep” truths of our universe leave you with a warm, cozy perspective.  If they do, I think you should probably think again.  I think, by necessity, you have to experience deep truths as strange and weird because our brains and bodies have evolved to exist under certain conditions and circumstances here on planet Earth at this time.  When an experience is very foreign to us (different from the conditions under which we evolved), we feel uncomfortable.  That feeling of uneasiness is a life preservation instinct, protecting us as we tread into unknown territory.  Also, our sense of awe comes from our instincts to understand our world and gain control over it.  That too is a survival instinct.  The more we can control the universe, the less subject we are to fate, and the more likely we can survive and flourish.  We feel both awe and reverence for our universe – we’re curious, but also respectful and fearful.  All of these emotions are important to our survival and development as a species.

I think the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey nicely captures the fear of going beyond where mankind evolved to exist.  The space pilot goes through an alien wormhole and ends up being warped into some crazy dimension that was nothing but random colors and nonsense.   This is all assuming that his space ship could survive traveling through the wormhole.  Our universe may be beautiful and comprehendable to us, but I feel that’s because we have evolved in this universe.   If there is an infinite multi-verse, I don’t expect alternate universes to be intelligible to us at all.  That becomes more apparent to you the more study what your brain is actually doing and how it processes information.

Joseph Campbell describes the process by which we develop and discover new knowledge in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces.   He spent his entire life studying the mythology and religions of this world, and he identified common threads and principles in all of them.  They all follow the same three step process:  1) The separation and departure, 2) the trials and initiation, and 3) the return and reintegration with society.

“…whether presented in the vast, almost oceanic images of the Orient, in the vigorous narratives of the Greeks, or in the majestic legends of the Bible, the adventure of the hero normally follows the pattern of the nuclear unit above described:  a separation from the world, a penetration to some source of power, and a life-enhancing return.”

– Joseph Campbell, A Hero With A Thousand Faces

I think the modern three step scientific process described by Feynman in the video below is very similar, but if not properly interpreted, lacks the emotion and vigor which religious narratives teach the same lesson.  At first you get an idea in your head, or start stumbling onto something.  The viewpoint may not align well with society or what others think (take Galileo for example), and you have to have the courage to pursue the idea and see where it takes you.  That’s when you experience the trials – the refiner’s furnace of affliction.  You start to experiment and run trials.  From there your ideas are purified and refined, tested and tried.  If the idea is able to pass all of your own tests, it must then be subjected to peer review, where experts from all over the world try their best to destroy your idea and find flaws in your thinking.  But if it can make it to the end without anyone finding fault in it, and press on, then it can be brought back to society and be used for the benefit of mankind.  That, in essence, is what the scientific method is all about.  That’s the best method we’ve found on this planet to discover “truth”.

Everything We Accept Undergoes Change

The other day Sandy sent me an email asking me if I’d write a post on absolute truth.  I responded to her and had planned to post something up on my site on the same topic.  Unfortunately I’ve been too busy to do so.  Well, tonight I’ll write up a few thoughts.

I wonder sometimes if we search for absolute truth because we fear change.  We search this world for something concrete – something we can use to get a solid footing.  I find change to be one of the most difficult things to think about.

Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.

– W.H. Auden, Lullaby

The worldview I was taught as a child had a lot more certainties and comforts to it than how I see things today.  There was an absolute moral law, good and evil, and an eternal paradise for those who followed those laws.  The Earth and all of the universe were snapped into existence, as were all the different forms of life we see throughout the Earth.  Everyone’s life had a plan and purpose to it.  The grand architect had thought out every little thing.  Every time something bad would happen to me, my mother would always tell me, “Don’t worry.  There’s a purpose for everything.”

These days I can’t see the world the same way.  Comforts of those sorts come at a high price – stupidity and stagnation.  A long time ago I wrote a post on life having a purpose, and I concluded that to look for a purpose in your life is to ask to be bound by fate.  In other words, if your life has some sort of destiny, if you don’t follow that plan, you’re bound to be miserable and never reach your full potential.  It’s antithetical to freedom.  This sort belief is commonly held by those with religious convictions and is associated with faith, but I believe it’s actually the opposite of faith.  If faith is the belief in things you can’t see, then why can’t you believe in yourself, and believe that you can make yourself into something you’re not now?

“All that we are not stares back at what we are.”
– W.H. Auden

If you study biology, you find that life is a complex, ever-branching tree.  It’s constantly changing.  With each new generation there are variations and change.  Over incomprehensible lengths of time, the life on our planet can change into things beyond what you’ve ever imagined.  To think that simple cellular life like bacteria, given sufficient time, will start to stick together and form huge colonies which we call life.  Mindless matter on its own accord, by its very chemical properties, leads to conscious sentient life-forms such as us and the dinosaurs.

If you study the Earth, you find that the landscape of our planet is in constant change.  Even the ground beneath our feet is a slow moving fluid with new earth rising to the surface and the old earth being sucked downward at subduction zones, making its way back into the mantle.   The climate is no different.  There have been times in our planet’s history where it was a giant frozen ice-ball.  In its early stages it was a molten inferno.

Our universe is also undergoing constant change.  All you have to do is look out of a telescope, and if you’re clever enough to know what you’re looking at, you can see the progression from near the beginning of the big bang (the cosmic background radiation), to the development of the first stars and galaxies, all the way to today.  Even when you look out onto a field of grass, each blade represents a different time period.  Light takes time to travel.  Whether an object is near or far, they’re all coming to you in discreet packets, all from different eras of time.

All you need to do is spend a little time studying astronomy and astrophysics.  Our galaxy, the Milky Way, contains at its center the most bizarre object.  So much stellar mass has collected there that the force of gravity has smashed it into a singularity, forming a “black hole”.  If you look at the orbits of stars near the center and calculate their velocities through shifts in their spectra, you find that four million suns are crammed into a tiny ball.  As this strange object spins, space and time warp and bend (Whatever that means… Oh, time bends?  Oh, and I can build a hallway that loops back on itself in a sort of four-dimensional doughnut?  You don’t say).  It may well be a gateway to a “baby” universe.  Some physicists believe our universe was born by the reverse process.  The black hole sucks matter in and spews the matter into an alternate universe in a big bang.  The “universe” as we know it likely isn’t a uni (one) – verse.  It’s probably a very complicated, ever-changing multi-verse.

The Earth will eventually be incinerated as our sun moves off the main sequence toward the red giant phase.  Our world is a temporary, transitory, ephemeral stage.

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts

– William Shakespeare, As You Like It

Oh, I must say I find it all bizarre.  Some ten years ago I set off to find the “truth”.  Everything I’ve found is bizarre.  As some people search for something in life, most of them turn to love.  When you study neuroscience, the same exact brain activity which takes place when someone shoots up on cocaine happens when people fall in love.  People endlessly struggle, hoping their brains will release those reward chemicals and send them off into ecstasy.  But in the world of pointless toil and struggle, giving you that rush all the time won’t do.  You have to earn it.  So off people go in search of happiness, their brains wired in such a way to constantly pursue one another, and every now and then they’re happy.  That doesn’t always last though.

I spent most of today reading evolutionary psychology.  If you want to know the truth about this world, then I recommend studying it.  If you want to find joy in life through love, then I don’t recommend studying it.  Love is something you don’t want to examine too closely.  Just trust me on that one.  You’ll see all the reasons women find certain types of men attractive, and why men prefer certain types of women, and then you just find yourself sick to your stomach and abhorred at what you really are.  I’m sometimes ashamed to be a man.  The world would be terrible if we followed the instincts as they are in us.  We have no choice but to repress our instincts, but that too puts us under psychological duress.  The human condition is something to behold.

So I find myself out late at night, exhaling a cold plume of smoke.  Then I walk out into a remote field and lay down and look upward at the stars.  That’s when I think of Auden’s poem The More Loving One.

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.

– W.H. Auden, The More Loving One

And as I pointed out to Sandy, even the things we think we think we know, we don’t really know.  The brain is a sort of clever charlatan.  We see the light bouncing off of the surface of objects and then our brain reconstructs a virtual world for our conscious experience.  We don’t see the world as it is.  When you see, you’re not even directly seeing the light which came in contact with your eyes.  Your brain is like a computer running a complex software program, and the data has been manipulated and distorted in all kinds of ways before it makes it to consciousness.  You have different brain cells dedicated to seeing individual patterns oriented at various angles.  I wish my scanner was working.  I’d scan you guys some visual cognition tests to show you the effects.  I’ll have to work with what I can find online.  Take this “illusion” created by Akiyhosi Kitaoka.  I put “illusion” in quotes because an illusion is simply your visual cognition system failing to properly translate the colors into the world as it really is.  The gray lines separating the checkers definitely look tilted downward don’t they?  It almost looks like the game-map in the first level of classic game Donkey Kong.  You’ll probably be surprised to find out that they’re not tilted.  They’re perfectly straight.

I can remove the “illusion” by removing the carefully staggered checkers.

It’s a little sloppy, but all I did was open it up in Microsoft Paint and chop out the checkers using the rectangle tool.  In one rectangular swoop I chopped out each section.  There’s no tilt in the lines.  I’d love to explain to all of you why this happens, but that’ll have to wait another day.  I’m completely intrigued by this.  Or check out this amazing drawing by Maurits Escher.

Look carefully at the top staircase.  At first you’re going up the stairs (or down the stairs?), then you’re at the bottom… but you never traveled back up…  *brain fart*   There’s your spatial system interpreting the color contrasts and failing you.    Here’s a staircase you can keep walking down but never make it to the bottom (and apparently, never have to walk back up either).  I think it’d be pretty epic to play Q-bert on these stairs.

Your brain is a virtual reality machine.  It interprets colors and processes them into a spatial environment – in this case, an impossible one.  I might be going crazy, but I think this entire world we’re all in at the moment is a giant illusion.  I say it’s an illusion because illusions are when your brain processes what it senses in the wrong way, giving you an incomplete or wrong picture.  My brain is telling me “this is the world”, but it’s a trick, just like these drawings.  Oh, it’s real, in a sense, but it’s not the complete picture.  Like Newtonian physics, it’s a crude approximation which only applies to certain conditions.  I think if I could step out and see the world in a deeper light, I’d see that time doesn’t flow how our brain tells us it flows, and that space is deeper than the 3D world we all think we inhabit.  I have an almost neurotic desire to figure out that puzzle.  I want to figure out the space-time fabric and rip open a wormhole and warp across the room.

I’m driven like a mad man to understand how the brain processes space and time, and how mathematics and physics can represent the universe.  As Bertrand Russell put it, “I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux.”  All that weirdness of quantum mechanics and relativity draws me in like a curious schoolboy.  I want to understand it, but when I come to questions like these, I find myself back to those early epistemological debates of philosophers like Kant.  I can’t use the “automated” spatial and time brain-systems.  You can’t “intuitively” understand it.  I have to deduce it all through pure logic and mathematics, using clever thought experiments to help guide the way.   Like I posted not too long ago, there’s areas of our brain which processes this sensory information, giving us a spatial orientation.  If I can just understand how that process works in detail, and combine that with what we know from physics, I think maybe I can help solve some of the weirdness in quantum mechanics.  Maybe I can even help unite quantum mechanics with Einstein’s relativity.  Maybe.  I can’t find anything more interesting to do.  Some people find ecstasy in love, or playing music — I find ecstasy in figuring out how my brain works and understanding the fundamental laws governing our universe.  It may all lead to nothing, but I’m having a grand old time.

Since we’ve been talking so much about change and illusions, I leave you with a quote by Katherine Mansfield.

“Everything in life that we really accept undergoes change.”
– Katherine Mansfield

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

I’m not always moved by poetry, but I really love this one.   It’s written by William Butler Yeats and it’s called The Lake Isle of Innisfree.

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a-glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

I also recently read a poem by Thomas Hardy entitled He Never Expected Much.  I wouldn’t have enjoyed it years ago, but I tend to agree with its message more now than then.

Well, World, you have kept faith with me,
Kept faith with me;
Upon the whole you have proved to be
Much as you said you were.
Since as a child I used to lie
Upon the leaze and watch the sky,
Never, I own, expected I
That life would all be fair.

‘Twas then you said, and since have said,
Times since have said,
In that mysterious voice you shed
From clouds and hills around:
“Many have loved me desperately,
Many with smooth serenity,
While some have shown contempt of me
Till they dropped underground.

“I do not promise overmuch,
Child; overmuch;
Just neutral-tinted haps and such,”
You said to minds like mine.
Wise warning for your credit’s sake!
Which I for one failed not to take,
And hence could stem such strain and ache
As each year might assign.