Monday, December 23, 2013

Plants and the Sun

There's a fascinating article in the New Yorker on The Intelligent Plant.  It looks at the current debate among plant scientists over whether plants are intelligent or might be said to behave intelligently.  Plants do seem to interact with their environment in a way that appears directed and can often be quite complex.  But what caught my eye was the statement by one scientist to the effect that one does not have to ascribe intelligence to plants just to make them sound special as it's enough simply to note that they "eat sunlight."

We all learn about photosynthesis in school.  How sunlight is converted to free electrons within plant chloroplasts and made available to make carbohydrates from air and soil.  This is indeed wonderful enough.  But the notion that what plants are doing can be simply described as eating sunlight brings to the fore just how miraculous a process this really is.  Plants eat sunlight and we animals can then eat them and those that eat them for us.  Through the intermediation of plants, we too eat sunlight.  And it's free.

On a recent warm, sunny winter solstice day, sitting outside smoking a cigar, I looked anew at how this system works.  The universe is constructed in just such a way as to allow complex physics and chemistry to evolve giant balls of gas that release tremendous fountains of energy -- we call these stars, like our sun -- free to be consumed by stationary processing plants -- that we indeed call plants -- to also feed mobile creatures that may eventually achieve individual consciousness. 

Pretty cool.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Beyond quantum physics? Needed, a new Einstein

I've been thinking about consciousness and quantum reality for some years now.  Come to a few conclusions that have flowed into these ruminations:

First, seems to me that consciousness is primordial, i.e., to originate from the same source as the material universe that is the subject of modern physics.  Or to put it differently, to be unexplainable as a mere manifestation of some complex process of matter.  Consciousness is a property of the universe just as material existence appears to be.  Indeed, it may be that consciousness is prior to matter, that the ghost in the machine came before the machine.

Second, that the universe must be understood as something both eternal - the speed of light to itself is instantaneous - and immersed in time via our individual consciousness of it.  The universe is something that exists all at once in time and space.  It is we that travel through it at a speed - the flow of time - that leads us to measure light at 186,000 miles per second.  Individual consciousness seems to be attached to material processes that result from the Higgs field having given certain particles mass, that is, that slows them down from the instantaneous propagation of light and other mass-less particles.  Connected to these "slow particles," we experience time.

And now a third thought, too preliminary to call a conclusion.  That modern quantum physics while powerful and beautiful, is somehow fundamentally wrong.  Quantum physics is essentially a quantitative, numerical understanding of reality.  It offers probabilities and predictions flowing from a mathematical model of reality.  It has been amazingly accurate, predicting particles and properties then confirmed through experiment.  But more recently it seems that reality conforms too accurately to the standard model of physics.  The Higgs mass so far is exactly as predicted and now it seems the electron is perfectly spherical rather than dipole.  Both results appear to rule out the simplest models of super-symmetry (which already proposes more dimensions than the four we experience).   Super-symmetry is the effort to extend quantum physics into a theory of everything, accounting for all particles as well as gravity, dark mass and dark energy.

The latest news on the Higgs seems quite revealing.  Its mass (125 GeV) seems to be exactly where it should be for the universe as we know it to exist.  If it was much stronger, nothing much would form beyond hydrogen and helium because the particles that make them up would be so tightly bound that heavier elements - and us - couldn't form.  If it was much weaker, nothing could hang together and yet again, nothing much - including us - would form.  The Higgs - like Goldilock's porridge - is just right for us.  This is enough of a conundrum, why should it be just right for us?  But there also seems no reason - absent a super-symmetry explanation - for the exact value that the Higgs does have.  It seems to be a "given."

Quantum physicists still have hope.  There are more elaborate models for super-symmetry, less simple, less beautiful, more dimensions.  And some suggest that the Higgs has different values in the many multi-verses of which our universe may just be one.  So we happen to live in one with just the right value because in most of the others we could not exist.

Quantum physics is already a bit Rube-Goldberg.  The multi-verse proposal is more so.  Occam's Razor suggests there must be a simpler way.  It might be useful to again consider Einstein's dictum that "God does not play dice."  His theory of relativity did not flow from math but from a profound insight into how time and space relate.  Yes, math flows from it but relativity is an understanding of time and space as one thing and gravity as resulting from its curvature.  Quantum physics and relativity remain trains running on different tracks.  We may need a new Einstein to put everything on one.  Someone who can provide a deeper insight into why the universe is the way it is rather than look to mathematics to explain everything.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Moments in Time and Consciousness

Attended the symphony today.  Instrumental music does not hold my attention as well as a play -- especially Shakespeare -- would.  I enjoyed the program but without words (lyrics), it didn't pin down my thoughts.  So they just wandered.

I wondered about exactly why I could not focus on the assembly of notes as I would on an assembly of words.  That made me think about just how these notes add up to music anyway.  The basic length of time in a conscious moment must be long enough for a series of notes to be assembled in the mind into a bit of music.  If we only perceived note by note -- or word by word for that matter -- we'd never make sense of anything.  The basic unit of conscious perception apparently is 2-3 seconds. Our now is this long.  Short term memory -- what is held in consciousness readily available as context for each moment -- is some 10-15 seconds.  We can perceive a much denser reality in each moment than simply one "thing."  Events can enter our consciousness that linger only some 40 milliseconds.  Indeed, each note is made up from a number of vibrations in the air and a symphony has lots of instruments making each note.  So each conscious moment is a highly sampled chunk of passing time.  The point is, however, not this but the apparent fact that our consciousness grasps this moment in its entirety.  It spans the stream of quantized time.  (The smallest unit of time is the Planck time, 5.39x10 to the -44th seconds.)  Consciousness seems to exist outside the flow of time.  We do not observe, think, exist in time but somehow alongside it.  The "ghost" in our machine provides a stage large enough for an assembly of actors to play their parts so that we can experience each moment of the world.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Higgs and Time

It's coming up on a year now since the confirmation of the Higgs particle and field. This was an exciting reaffirmation of the Standard Model of modern particle physics. But after a year of refining measurements, it seems the version of the Higgs found fits too well with the current model and offers no hint of any unexpected strangeness that could lead physicists to further insights and discoveries. The Higgs mass has been determined to be 125.7 GeV (gigaelectronvolts). Quite remarkable measurement but one that agrees so perfectly with the Standard Model that it leaves little room for current theories that tried to go beyond it to a more unified physics. Most varieties of supersymmetry and string theory – the simpler, more beautiful ones that physicists prefer – cannot meet the constraints imposed by the Higgs value. The current model cannot account for gravity or relativity and can't explain dark matter or dark energy. This means that while it can explain very well 5% of the universe, it cannot say a thing about the remaining 95%.

But it may be even more interesting to ponder the fact that the particle that gives other particles mass also has a mass. The Higgs field interacts with some particles (the quarks) and gives them mass while others (neutrinos and photons) are lightly or un-affected and have little or no mass. But if the Higgs interaction gives mass, what gives mass to the Higgs? This is another of the strange places that our modern science leads us. (Are you watching St. Thomas?)

Mass may also be at the root of time. Things with mass cannot travel at the speed of light and therefore exist immersed in time. Things without mass do travel at light speed and therefore are not subject to time. It's as if mass is really a measurement of the degree to which stuff is trapped in time, separated out of what would otherwise be an eternal now. Or to put it another way, introducing mass is a way to throw things out of heaven and down to earth?

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Deep Time

Went walking today through the nearby woods. As I've been watching a Nova series on the evolution of life as shown in Australia, I started thinking about deep time. Actually, I started thinking about trees and green plants, as I was surrounded by them. And about an image from that TV show showing what the first land plants must have looked like 475 million years ago. The were like simple, tiny mosses and lichens. In the time since, they've become all the plants we see today. 

Reconstruction of Cooksonia

The earth – and solar system – are some 4.6 billion years old. The age of the universe, according to the latest information from the Planck satellite, is around 13.8 billion. The most simple forms of life on earth go back at least 2 billion years. The Ginko tree is 200 million years old. What do these numbers mean to us? We have become used to reading about hundreds of billions and even trillions of dollars so we feel comfortable, perhaps, with thinking of just a few billion here and there. But look at a forest and think about the time it took to make it what we see. Read anything about the latest discoveries of our DNA and how the supposedly “junk” part actually helps orchestrate a vast and complex dance of proteins that make us what we are. Or about the complexity of the human brain, only a million or so years old. How long did it take from the first stirrings of life – tiny bits even without cell walls – to everything alive we see? Each change taking countless generations of random mutation and natural selection. Stare down that long hallway home and that is deep time.

Go further back to that Big Bang of 13.8 billion years ago. At the first moment, everything was the same burst of energy. Light didn't escape into space for over 300,000 years. But within the tiniest part of one second, the Higgs Field manifested and gave form to the elementary particles of the universe. Over the next billions of years, the energy and matter of the universe cooled and condensed into atoms, molecules, stars, galaxies and us. If we define life as that which exists and changes, the universe has been alive since the beginning, evolving complexity and becoming so many things. Look down that hallway, to the light at the bedroom door and that is deep time.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Quantum Being

Reading in La Roy Ladurie's excellent study of the people of Montaillou, came across his observation on the musings of these 14th century peasants on freedom of will, do we have it or not? Began thinking of this question in light of my musings on the speed of consciousness. I had suggested that the speed of light is actually a measure of time, the time it takes us to leap from one moment of existence to the next. Light itself has no speed since at its "speed" as we measure it, time does not exist. Light relative to itself is everywhere it will be at the same moment. The universe it illuminates is therefore that which exists across all time at once, the universe as an eternal whole. Our consciousness – embedded in matter and not traveling as light – experiences time and sees light crawl along at so much slower than infinite speed.

Could freedom of will exist if a timeless universe also exists? If everything that has happened, is happening and will happen “already” exists in the same instant of creation in the Big Bang, what could be new? Are we conscious beings just crawling along lines that already exist, just following what is already fated to happen?

Being is an interesting word. It can be both verb and noun. I can be something, I can be being sad or happy. I can have a state of being, we can talk of human and supreme beings or even alien beings. Being is simply the condition of existing, of having existence. But does a rock have being? It does exist but would we say that a rock is being anything. Even just being a rock? Being implies something more, it suggests a subjective agent, someone who is being. Only something that is being could also be conscious. Consciousness is the awareness of a being. The speed of time is the pace of a beings movement through moments.

Back to freedom of will. We certainly feel, at least some times, that we have it. Life can be so complicated with so many random seeming events and difficult choices to make that it is hard to believe that it has all already been written. Sure, sometimes it seems we have no choice but to have done what we have done but in reality at each moment, we can decide among almost anything. How to square this with a relativistic universe in which the true speed of light is instantaneous and in which everything has already happened?

What if being is quantum, both particle and wave? Each of us are particles. We move through a material universe with time. We are attached to particular assemblages of matter we call bodies. We observe and act within the time-bound material world and with our wonderfully complex brains our consciousness blossoms into self-awareness and thought. Being also exists as a wave. We would not necessarily be able to understand that, as such being – accompanied by an experience of everything at once – is not easy to grasp. But such being – being beyond time – would not become aware of the particles of being before (or after) they acted because before and after would not exist. In other words, there is no text for us to follow, no “fate” which limits or determines our actions, because what we do can be known only as we do it. If the eternal, timeless universe is one conscious thought of being, it is nothing but what we particular beings immersed in time have made of it. We collapse the wave function.

Just a thought.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Speed of Consciousness

I've been thinking about consciousness and reality for many years now and have come to believe that the most reasonable hypothesis is that reality is intimately related to consciousness and that consciousness is at least as primordial as matter and energy. Along the way, I've imagined the universe from the point of view of a surfer riding a photon created in the Big Bang. Because at the speed of light time stops, that “surfer” will be everywhere the photon will ever be in the same instant. From that vantage point, time does not exist and one can imagine the universe, from its moment of creation to its end, as a single crystal containing all of spacetime.

Today I was wondering about the speed of light and what exactly it means. One of the odd things about the speed of light is its value, 186000 miles per second. Why is it exactly that and what does it mean that light has a “speed” when, from the point of view of light, it is instantaneous. Perhaps the speed of light is not its speed at all but rather the speed of time? We experience time as a wave, passing from past to future with its crest being the present moment, our now. I've been reading Montaillou – about the life of a village in southern France in the early 14th Century – and felt myself looking through a portal into the lives of people far away in time, in many ways so different, but also real breathing humans just like us. Of course, when these people were alive – when they were riding the crest of time – theirs' was now. We now ride the wave but it will continue beyond us. Perhaps it is time itself that moves through the crystal universe? We see light moving at some speed only because that is the speed with which time can record its own passage.

It may seem strange to think of time moving with some speed. Whether spacetime is quantum or analog is now much in debate within physics, as well as what the smallest moment of time or unit of space may be. But according to relativity, the speed of light is both a measurement of space and time. The total distance between two points in spacetime must be conserved within the limits of the speed of light. Between two objects at rest to each other, the distance is almost entirely one of space because their speed relative to each other is functionally zero. Two objects moving relative to each other at some speed will have part of their distance in space and part in time. At rest or at low speeds, the distance in time may be negligible. But an extreme example is the case of the two twins. One twin stays at home on earth and the other travels to a nearby star and back at the speed of light. At the speed of light, the distance of the trip is experienced mostly as time. When the twin returns to the spot where he left, he has barely aged while his twin is an old man. What is being measured by the “speed of light” is really the relationship of time and space.

What is it that is traveling at the speed of light? It's not really time but our awareness of the distance traveled within spacetime. The speed of light may actually be the speed of consciousness. By this I mean the speed of our crest of awareness through the timeless, eternal crystal universe. Whatever consciousness caused the Big Bang, determined the value of the Higgs boson and the parameters of physical reality, and dumped itself into that reality may have wanted a long vacation. At the “speed of light” – really the speed of the wave of consciousness that sweeps through creation – the lifetime of the expanding universe (expanding due to dark energy) should be counted in tens of billions of years. An infinite string of nows flung like pearls upon the wine dark sea.