Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Turtles and other puzzles

There are some things I will never understand.

For one thing, quantum mechanics. I have read about it a bit and think about it a lot. I really only understand it a little when I’m in the act of reading about it and only if the author is more of a writer than a scientist and goes easy on the math. Still, even when focusing on an excellent treatment of the subject, I find it baffling. Who doesn't?

In a nutshell (a really, really small nutshell), quantum mechanics is about how really, really small things work, like atomic particles. It is almost impossible to understand in terms of the physics we experience day to day, because the quantum particles behave in a way that makes physicists say things like – if you understand it, you probably don’t understand it. I made that one up, but they say things like that all the time. Even Einstein, on my short list of the twentieth century’s greatest people, was baffled by it, and intellectually stymied in trying to disprove some of the odder bits of it.

For years Einstein continued an ongoing friendly debate at scientific conferences with one of the other great scientists of the century, Niels Bohr of Copenhagen, who gave us the classical model of the atom -- electrons rotating around a nucleus. These discussions were not recorded, and it’s a shame, because they probably would rank with the Lincoln Douglas debates of 1858 as the greatest debates in history.

Bohr insisted that all that underlay matter was uncertainty and randomness, which Einstein rejected. Some say that Einstein was, in spite of his thought provoking scientific breakthroughs, a materialist at heart (in the scientific sense), who could not fathom the idea that there was no order underlying reality. "Copenhagen School" scientists like Bohr had no problem with it, and, in fact, insisted upon it. His famous expression, which he delivered in different ways (so I’ll paraphrase) was “God does not play dice with the universe”. Of course, he also at least once said “Maybe God does play dice with the universe," but whose counting?

One of the weirdest things about quantum theory is the now scientifically proven (so they say) fact that quantum particles can affect each other instantaneously at any distance. This is called by various names like "quantum strangeness" or "quantum entanglement". For the observations to be correct, and experiment after experiment seems to prove it is, that means that two objects, if you can call a nuclear particle a thing, are communicating faster, maybe much faster, than the speed of light. If true, it would disprove one of the basic tenets of Einstein’s theories – that nothing can travel faster than light.

In fact, one group of scientists claims that they have made observations in an experiment where particles were caused to move faster than light. They claim that they can make a particle in a specially constructed environment go through a tube before it started. You don’t have to read that again. It makes no sense to us, and I have trouble believing it is not an experimental error or misreading of the data. But, the more you read about quantum physics, the easier it is to believe these things (or, the contrary, that these physicists have no clue themselves).

This all sounds very Star Trekish, although the current theory also holds that this faster than light or instantaneous transmission cannot work with classically sized objects or information, like a human body or an email, so no teleportation as tv shows would describe them would ever work.

However, these odd quantum characteristics may lead to something called quantum computers, which, though mostly in the theoretical stage, are being worked on by scientists around the world. When perfected, they will, arguably, be more far more powerful than conventional computers in the same proportion that a Stealth Fighter is more powerful than a paper airplane. I don’t understand how this would work either (no one does) but I would trade all my books for the name of the company which can produce the first working models at affordable prices.

How would we mortals understand this incomprehensible computor at the bottom of which there is supposedly no order? I'm not worried. Eventually, it will become user friendly. How many of us really understand how tv sets, airplanes and regular computers work? We can say things like, well, rays shoot through the air and make things happen, but you know, really . . . .

So, if you see me staring out in space, I am sometimes actually thinking about things like time, matter, energy and other things I don’t understand. I really do try and solve the puzzles of the universe on the back of envelopes with some neat little circles overlapping each other, even if its silly. I don’t think about gravity a lot, because in my personal quantum universe gravity is really just misunderstood . . . um . . . something else. Don’t stay up late waiting for the book. I’ll post my discoveries right here along with my theories about Christmas and other matters of national importance.

I never really understood the whole first cause thing either. First cause means explaining how there is something in the universe instead of nothing and, often, suggesting that there has to be something which always existed before everything else. Many people solve the problem by simply claiming that God caused the first thing (notice I use the capital G so as not to be too controversial). That naturally reminds me of the turtle story, which I’m hoping at least one person reading this hasn’t heard of yet.

It doesn’t seem like anyone can figure out where this story came from but there are often references to ancient India in the many versions, so possibly it started there and made its way around the world. This is my version.

A seeker of knowledge climbs Mount Everest to find the wisest man in the world. When he reaches the top the great one is sitting there in the lotus position. The seeker immediately asks him what the earth rests upon?

The wise one responds “The earth rest on the back of a turtle.”

“Okay” said the seeker of truth, “but what is that turtle standing on?”

“Another turtle.”

“And that turtle? What’s he supposed to be standing on?”

“Well, obviously, it is turtles all the way down.”

People interpret that joke in various ways too, but it usually means something like -- we can never know anything for certain, or however much you know, there’s always another question, and so forth.

Now, sometimes you may have had or overheard discussions with folks who advocate the God theory as the explanation for first cause. In fact, God would be synonymous with first cause. When asked, “If God created the universe, who created God?” the response is often “No one. He was always there”. That’s meant seriously, of course, and if you think you don’t know anyone who believes it, ask around. It’s really the same thing as the turtle story.

My answer to the puzzle of first cause? Hell if I know. This post is about things I don’t understand, although, I’ve always been romantically attached to the Indian philosophy that all existence is an illusion. Of course, then we get to the problem of who is having the illusion? Whatever the answer is, it must be some version of -- turtles all the way down.

A British philosopher by the name of George Berkeley had, as the center of his 18th century philosophy, the modern notion that we can’t experience reality directly; all we can know is what we perceive. Thus, we cannot know what underlies existence. Possibly the writers of the Matrix films read up upon him, because their almost incomprehensible plot has Berkeley’s theories at heart.

Berkely’s logic is actually hard to refute. But it was attempted by Dr. Samuel Johnson of dictionary fame, who simply kicked a rock and said “I refute it thus”. Of course, if seriously questioned about his knowledge of the object he was kicking, he would probably have to admit that he could only know what he perceived -- the sight and feeling of his foot kicking a rock. No matter how anyone can concoct an experiment to circumstantially or indirectly consider this problem, they seemingly cannot escape this paradox. You see, its turtles all the way down.

Last topic – rap and other “modern substitutes for music” (I stole that phrase from a legal newsletter, of all places). I just don’t get it, but in a different way than quantum physics or first cause.

Lots of old folks like me are unhappy with modern music, just as our parents were unhappy with ours. I am perfectly content with the concept that good, bad, worst, best are mostly all a matter of taste. And generally speaking, we are all probably attracted to music that we grew up with and less attracted to music the next generation grew up with (and there prediliction for ending sentences with prepositions). But there’s an exception for everything.

Here’s where I go out on a limb. I am willing to say, however foolishly, that the music of my generation (‘60s-‘80s) is simply better than the stuff on MTV right now. That’s right, I said better, and I mean by a conventional standard of why something is better than something else -- longevity. For that matter, the music of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky (just wanted to prove I could spell it), Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louie Armstrong, and my personal favorite, Louis Prima, is better too.

My proof is anecdotal, of course. When I have asked young people, sometimes in groups, to name some of the older songs of the groups they like, many of them just stare blankly, and can only name songs from the last album that came out. Sometimes they can’t name any – any of the songs on the next to last album. Ask somebody my age to name songs of their favorite performers from thirty years ago, when they were growing up and see the difference.

In fact, if you think about really modern “music,” how long do they play these songs on the air? Not real long. And I don’t just mean rap or hip hop. We still playing Bach and Beethoven, Louis Armstrong and Bruce Springsteen everywhere you can imagine. When is the next time you think you are likely to hear a Spice Girls song? With newer music, it is only the “newness” that seems to matter.

I’m sure this sounds very provincial. Okay, I’ll accept that it might be. I'm just an arrogant old man who likes what he likes. That doesn’t mean there is not some truth to it. I'll take the heat on this and say out loud what we are thinking. I'm happy to admit that there are a few rap songs I really like, that there are apt students of new music who know everything ever recorded, and that there are a lot of classical, jazz and rock pieces that I hate, even some by Bach, Presley, Armstrong, etc. Still, keeping an open mind doesn’t mean we can’t demand a melody or decent lyrics, which is really the whole difference. Say it with me.

Believe it or not, I have actually had some kids tell me that I’m right about this (not many) but that new music is not about being good or memorable, but about expressing despair and other emotions, style, as well as being in a format most kids can participate in (rapping is easier than carrying a tune). I don’t know how that would apply to Britney Spears music, but, if so, hurrah for them and nobody should try and stop it other than by closing their ears to it.

I heard Louis Armstrong, a god, say that there are but two types of music. Good music and bad music. I'm betting he's with me on this one. Take it, Louis.


  1. Why is it that everyone who starts out talking about physics, ends up talking about philosophy? It's entirely possible to believe in both God and science. There are relatively few atheists amongst the great physicists. It doesn't bother me that Einstein was confused by quantum physics. It's the glass half full, half empty thing. I'm more interested in the things Einstein was not confused about. Leave it to your wonderful eccentric mind to leap from physics to rap music.

  2. Because -- science is still a subset of philosophy, although, these days the tail is wagging the dog.

    I never said you couldn't believe in God and science. I don't, but I see no reason anyone else can't. My point is that logically, you cannot go from "we have no concept as to how the universe started," to "God did it". Actually, if people feel like believing it anyway as a matter of faith (another thing I really don't understand), that's fine with me too. As long as no one's looking at me while they chop wood for the fire.

    Now quantum hip hop would be a really good topic.


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About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .