science nerge

fat caterpillar

fat caterpillar, 2013

When October rolled around, I started cutting back the stand of fennel in my backyard bit by bit. The bees loved the flowers so I didn’t want to discourage them, but I also didn’t want a dispersion of hundreds of seeds as happened the year before. Everyday I would cut back the umbels that were transitioning from flowers to seeds, always checking to make sure there weren’t any anise swallowtail caterpillars that I was throwing in the compost heap.

After doing this task day after day for weeks, you can’t blame me for not checking too closely for caterpillars when I cut down the last bit of fennel.

The next day, there on the ground, was a caterpillar foraging through the fallen fennel (alliteration not intended). Argh! I thought. What do I do now? For several days I would go out in the neighborhood on a hunt for fennel and bring it back to the caterpillar. On the fourth day, I decided to put it in a jar. I thought as long as I was feeding it, I may as well enjoy the benefits of seeing it turn into a butterfly.

After a few more days, the caterpillar seemed pretty unhappy. It wasn’t moving much. Then it stopped eating. I felt very sad. I had tried to save this little creature, but it seemed it wasn’t meant to be. When I told this to friends, they reassured me that at least I had tried.

After not moving at all for a day, I was sure when I checked on it the following morning that it would just be lying curled up on the bottom of the jar. It was kind of curling up, and looking kind of brown, but it didn’t seem dead.

I happen to be sitting next to the jar when suddenly the caterpillar started moving like crazy. I saw that its skin had crack near its head and a bright green chrysalis was emerging. What the hell! I didn’t realize that the chrysalis emerged from inside the caterpillar. It wiggled and wiggled for about five minutes, and I managed to get it on the blurry video. When it stopped, I though it was just resting because it seemed like it hadn’t completely emerged. But it didn’t moved again.

caterpillar to chrysalis

caterpillar to chrysalis

I had always heard about how caterpillars become butterflies, and I found out several years ago that in that process the caterpillar completely liquifies inside the chrysalis before reforming into a butterfly. I’ve referred to it here. That is all very crazy. Now it’s gotten crazier. This same creature starts out as a caterpillar. Then, inside, it starts becoming the encasement for its future transformation. This literally bust out of its skin. Then it liquifies, reforms as a butterfly, and bust out of the chrysalis.

How does such a thing evolve? I didn’t realize that something that we all know about from an early age was so complicated and bizarre. Can you imagine if at some point, you wiggled out of your skin to be a mummy? It’s so weird. I have to admit, watching the caterpilalr/chrysalis actually made me feel a little  queasy.

Once upon a time, when I was young, I would see things in the external world as signs.  The world spoke to me, I just had watch it and pay attention. Even after I stopped believing this, E. would still say how she saw things as signs. Then she stopped talking about it. If you read the entries for Crows and Hawks Playing, you’ll see that many adults believe that natural events are signs for them personally. I’ve responded, as gently as I could, that its kind of absurd to think that other animals exist solely to convey coded messages to us personally. I mean, that’s really the height of egocentrism.  If you scroll down that page to March 12, you’ll see that I said this:

I think that it’s very easy to see other creatures on the planet as being symbols for our interpretation. I know I have had these feelings and interpreted experiences I have had in this very way — that a certain animal was conveying a symbolic message for me.

But as time has gone by, I have come to think that this type of perception is erroneous. Wild animals exist in a world of their own experience, on their own terms. They don’t act symbols for us, any more than they do for them. It’s somewhat humbling to realize that, to most of the elements of natural world, we as individuals are unimportant, if not completely below their perception.

If we peel away the layers of symbology, interpretation, and magical beliefs that we impose on nature, there’s a world that is amazing, stunning, and unbelievable just the same.

But, ha ha! I saw that caterpillar as a sign. Ironies of ironies!

I know,  I KNOW, that the caterpillar didn’t pop into existence solely to give me a message. Yet when I experienced these bizarre transformation from a creature who seemed to be dying I did actually think, well, there’s hope for me.

I have been slowly and painfully relinquishing my hold on a life that I dearly loved for a while now. I have to keep telling myself that I can never have that life again, but it’s hard to move on because I can’t imagine that I could be that happy again. K has said that this is a narrative I am telling myself. I think it’s more that I lost my narrative. That narrative was: yes, I suffered a lot in my life, but finally I got the happy life I deserved.

Well, so, that isn’t my story. So I don’t know what is.

Being a anise swallowtail caterpillar must be a happy, easy life. You crawl around in the sunshine eating tasty fennel all days long, getting fatter and bigger and feeling good. Then one day you don’t feel so well and you keep eating but it gets hard to move. Your skin starts to bother you. Then there’s something wrong with your mouth and you can’t eat anymore. Then your legs won’t work and you’re just stuck, feeling more and more uncomfortable until – bam! You have the uncontrollable urge to bust out of your skin. And that’s the last thought you have before you lose consciousness.

My story isn’t really parallel to this — especially the lost of consciousness, thankfully — but there’s certainly been many stages of discomfort that seem to be ending only to be a seque to another form of discomfort. And it seem to go on and on and on. I think: never mind happy, will I ever even feel comfortable again? It’s been such a long time.

It’s almost winter. That butterfly could emerge in the dead of winter, when it is so cold and there are so few flowers that it may not survive. Or it may never emerge because the conditions just aren’t right. Or it may wait until spring and be just fine.

So, yes, I am succumbing to a very old cliché and thinking that maybe, just maybe, something really great will come out of me from all this discomfort.  I won’t go on with the metaphor about emerging butterflies because it’s just too corny and hackneyed to say. You know what I’m feeling. I think it’s called hope.

universe.JPGI recently finished A Universe From Nothing: Why there is something rather than nothing, which I have to say, was a little disappointing. Even though the physics were clearly explained and even somewhat exciting, the overall tone of the book is a bit pedantic.

I’ve contemplated this very question quite a bit and wrote about here on The Nerge, mostly it in this post The Origin of Everything. I was very excited when I saw this book and immediately reserved it at the fabulous Oakland Library (because, as you may know, I never buy a book unless the library doesn’t have it, or I absolutely adore it.) When I got it just a few weeks later and began to read it, I was amused that Krauss, the author, began the book by immediately discounting any notions of god creating the universe. Which is fine, except that he seems quite stuck on this idea, and returns to it repeatedly throughout the book, which is very unnecessary, as he makes his point quite clear from the get-go. Now, I understand it may be really boring and annoying to constantly explain to people that you don’t need god to have a universe. Conversely, I feel that life is difficult and incomprehensible to most folks, and if believing in god makes it feel more sensible or even benevolent to someone, I’m fine with that as long it harms no one. Additionally, even though I myself am an atheist, I found it almost as annoying to have Krauss repeatedly talk about god not existing as I find it annoying that people assume I celebrate Christmas. Okay, the Christmas thing is way more annoying. Skip that.

So, I hate to be redundant, but I keep going back to Alexander Vilenkin’s book Many Worlds in One as the pinnacle of fun cosmology/quantum physics reading. Vilenkin has a sense of humor and also draws humorous illustrative cartoons sprinkled throughout his book. (Krauss refers to Vilenkin in A Universe From Nothing, and points out that Vilenkin worked crappy day jobs while pursuing his PhD. Maybe this gives him a sense of humility that ivory-tower academics lack.) That aside, other books of this genre seem hella dry in comparison to Many Worlds in One, as this book did.

Next, the whole point of the book is to show that elementary particles appear from nothing on a regular basis, therefore a universe could have easily come from nothing. Although this is startling and fascinating information, it wasn’t completely convincing. I was convinced that particles *appear* to come from nothing (appear to appear?), but I wasn’t convinced that we know enough (or could ever know enough) about how the entire universe works to show that they come from nothing rather than, say, another imperceptible dimension, parallel universe, or time warp. Krauss writes about how previous supposed breakthroughs in quantum physics in the last couple of decades have since been disproven, discounted, or fallen into disfavor (26 dimensions, anyone?) but doesn’t seem to consider that his own breakthroughs may also end up on the theoretical trash heap in the not-too-distant future (theories of non-existent time aside). (Okay, I’m done with my overuse of parenthesis).

Then, towards the end of the book, I feel Krauss really blows it. He posits that when people ask “Why?” they really mean “How?” so when people ask the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, what they really mean is “How is there something rather than nothing?” For such an intelligent man, I can’t believe he could believe something so lame. The question “Why do I exist?” is NOT the same as “How do I exist?”. The latter can be explained through sex education, but the former requires contemplation and perhaps philosophy. So much moreso does “Why is there something rather than nothing?” begs thoughtfulness beyond physics. It’s a copout to even put forth the idea that How means Why, especially when Why is the subtitle of the book, and worse when it come at the end of the book.

The book does have some nice, clear, fun science in it, but it really falls short of its ambitious title. I’m sure titles like that are dreamed up by publishers to sell books and commercialize what is a rather poor commodity in our anti-intellectual country, so I can’t fault them for it too much. But I get the feeling that Krauss wants to be the next big pop-culture science-guy icon, and I feel that he has a way to go to fill Carl Sagan’s shoes.

Okay, you knew this was coming when I wrote “time warp”… admit it…

Here’s some video of my Boe-Bot (robot kit) navigating a simulated table-top and avoiding a virtual fall to its demise.

Because this is what nerds do.

What does it all mean? This is a question that burbles up from K. & my subconscious minds during our weekly hikes. I’m sure there is also a sprinkling of anxiety in the question as in, “Aagh! I’m going to die someday!” It seems there is something about walking through breathtaking beauty here in the East Bay* that lends itself to thoughts of eternalness and how eternal we are not. Like every other human, K & I have no answers, just lots of theories that are really just ideas and mythology. But we come up with some good questions and discussions.

To whit: Recently the question “Why do I exist?” lead to “Why does anything exist?” which we then rephrased to “Why is there something instead of nothing?” We talked about this and felt that although we don’t believe in God, the everything is so incredibly well-structured, from the universes down through sub-atomic particles, that it is hard not to believe in a consciousness behind it all. It seems that our minds lends itself naturally to this conclusion, that we are somehow preprogrammed to see it in this way. But just because we an inclination toward a belief, it doesn’t mean that it is true. For example, humans are naturally afraid of spiders and snakes, but that doesn’t mean they are the most dangerous encounters we experience. In fact, I (an arachnophobe) have a brain that perceives fare more danger at the sight of a large spider than I do when speeding down the freeway, which statistically is thousands of times more dangerous to me. So, similarly, a propensity to imagine a creator does not mean that is how the universe came to be. Our brains have a propensity for a lot of nonsense, which alternatively is the wonderful world of imagination. (For more on this, see my post on The Science of Superstition).

So, K & I next decided to do a short survey of two people in our lives who also read a lot of non-fiction nerdy stuff and spend some of their idle time pondering these things: H. and K2. I spoke to H. and K spoke with K2. When K & I reconvened, we discovered that H. & K2 had posited similar responses. The basic premise is that since time is an illusion and is actually infinite, it’s a mathematical probability that eventually an ordered universe will emerge. H. also observed that space is infinite as well, so there is plenty of room and well as time for orderliness to evolve. Some of this is explored in Alexander Vilenkin’s book Many Worlds in One (hmm, I guess I never wrote a review on this). Now all that is fine and well, but we still haven’t answered the why-something-instead-of-nothing question. Here K2 & H both venture into Big Bang territory. But why was there a Bang? Theories talk about the Higgs boson, and theorists can talk all they want about a particle emerging from nothingness to cause the bang, but no one can really, really explain how even a particle emerged from nothing. In fact, the only answer is that there NEVER WAS NOTHING. How can this be?

If you’ve done your homework and read any of Stephen Hawkin’s books or Vilenkin’s (mentioned above) or any astrophysicist’s diatribe, the theory is that there is really no time. Or if there is, it is non-linear. When K and I think “non-linear” we immediately think “circle.” K describes it like this: you can put you point on any point of a circle and never conclusively say it is the beginning or the end, for it there is no beginning or end.

To explore this further, we have to go beyond geometry. Time isn’t necessarily a line, or circle, or even a sphere. Perhaps it’s either a total illusion or it has a configuration that we are incapable of imagining because we are only capable of perceiving a linear construct. If there is no beginning or end, then there was never nothing because there never was “never”. K and I contemplated this for a long time, and even though we can say the words and talk about the ideas, we can’t really imagine it. It’s just too damn big and too far from our experiences.

Still, we came to these conclusions:
time is either non-existent or beyond comprehension,
therefore there was always something and will always be something,
therefore something did not come out of nothing.

And as for us, this means that on some level, we will not have a distinct beginning or ending. However, whether we will ever exist on a plane in which we can be experientially conscious of this is another question with no answer.

However, Lewis Black has his own theory.**
Lewis Black – The End of the Universe
Lewis Black Videos Lewis Black Jokes Stark Raving Black Videos

*This links to the East Bay Regional Parks district, the first and largest regional parks system in the country and home to many insanely beautiful hikes.

** Yeah, I know I posted this before, but it’s worth watching again.

How the Developing Brain Creates Supernatural Beliefs

science_superstition.jpgFinally! I book to answer my burning question, “Why, in an age where scientific information is so readily available, to people prefer to belief in irrational ideas?” By irrational ideas I’m referring to religion, new-age mumbo jumbo, crummy appropriations of Native American beliefs, UFOs, etc. It boggles my mind that someone would prefer creationism — for which there is no proof, to evolution — which has almost limitless proof. The Science of Superstition sets out to answer this question with the following hypothesis: Because the human brain is made that way.

kanizsa_emergent_square.jpgBruce M. Hood, who is a professor of child development and cognitive development, cites numerous studies in this helpful book of how humans perceive and interpret their surroundings from 12 hours old, through various childhood ages, and adulthood. In these studies, he shows that humans have a natural propensity to “fill in the blanks” when information is missing, whether visually or experientially. For a visual example, he uses this illustration called a Kaniza figure. Both babies and adults see the square that isn’t actually there. *

Experientially, humans continually try to perceive patterns in a seemingly random world. They create rituals to try control a world that they cannot. Children easily create lucky charms or personal rituals to help them overcome fear. I remember that when I was three, my parents felt I was old enough to go to the bathroom alone in the middle of the night. Since this frightened me, I took a impulsively toy with me. But then, since one toy made me feel less afraid, I figured if is good, two is better. As time went on, I had to collect more and more toys until finally one night I did not make it to the bathroom in time. When I realize what I had done, I started to cry, and one parents or another appeared and assessed the situation. They kindly suggested I leave the toys behind in the future, which I did to avoid future embarrassment. I use the example because he coincides with Hood’s hypothesis that humans naturally develop ritual behavior (collecting toys to ward off unknown harm) and magical thinking (that I can control unknown harm — the bad –through toys — the good).

As we mature and develop rational thought, we never really rid ourselves of this type of thinking. Hood cites studies that show that we actually spontaneously have supernatural thoughts (his term for magical thinking) but actually expend energy to suppress these thoughts and act on the more rational one. It happens instantaneously, and we usually are not aware that we suppressing anything.

In some cases, though, this is the type of thinking we that is the root to many false ideas we stubbornly hold on to as adults. And for some adults it is easier to just believe the magical thinking and not work on developing rational thought. This is why some people are naturally drawn to religion and some are not. It is easier to believe in an all-seeing all-knowing god than random chaos. It works better for the typical human mind.

Of course, some people are not encouraged or repressed from developing rational thought, and instead encouraged to believe specific myths of ideology. Although sometimes a person who has only been encouraged to believe supernatural thoughts breaks away to follow rational thinking, often people don’t have the impulse, desire or courage to do so. And yet other people, raised without much supernatural thought, will be drawn to religion as an adult, simply because it brings them comfort.

Hood spends some time in his chapter “The Biology of Belief” exploring two things. One is that some people are naturally skeptics and some are believers, and that this can be traced to the amount of dopamine production in their brain. Whether the level of dopamine effects the person’s outlook or vice versa isn’t conclusively shown, although Hood seems to feel that it’s just a biological predisposition.

The other part of the chapter talks about the phenomenon that all people experience which is that someone is watching him. This is where his logic gets fuzzy. He claims that since this is a universal feeling that all people have without being taught, it is a prime example of the brain’s tendency towards imaginary occurrences. However, he quotes a study which showed that on average people can tell whether they are being watched or not even if they have no other cues to guide them. But since science can not show a way how that could be happening, it could not be happening. Somehow the data is flawed. Ahem? That idea is what’s pretty flawed. Could it be that it is happening, but science just doesn’t have a way to measure how? I think we all know that ignoring data that doesn’t fit your hypothesis is the antithesis of science.

A type of thought that Hood explores more successfully is the idea that inanmate objects can be imbued with the good or bad qualities of the owner. His favorite example is asking people if they would wear a sweater that was owned by a murderer. Most people will not put the sweater on. However, clothing worn by people we love, whether celebrities or relatives, is highly desirable. Many family arguments, sometimes never to be resolved, are about the division of a deceased relative’s cherished belongings. Objects of sentimental value are irreplaceable even if they themselves are inherently worthless. This is a better example of a non-religious supernatural thought that appears fairly spontaneously in humans. This type of thinking can extend beyond the personal to a group. For example, observant Jews cannot touch objects on the Sabbath which would lead them to do acts that are forbidden on the Sabbath. Since Jews cannot light fires on the Sabbath, matches are forbidden (muksah). In my experience with this custom, it was pretty easy to start thinking of the word muksah to mean tainted.

One obvious flaw I found in Hood’s thinking is that humans construe order out of a random universe. Babies will take objects and put like with like. Human brains like categories, order, and patterns and will impose them on their surrounding. But… who said the universe is random? Events that occur to us personally may seem random, but the universe itself is nothing but ordered. In fact, it’s the very orderliness of it that makes people think of divine origin, a mastermind, or gods behinds its creation. It is so ordered it is very difficult to think of it as being created randomly without forethought. Which is where a lot of religion comes from: the question “Who made this incredibly well-designed world?”

Of course, I don’t agree with everything that Hood puts forth in this book and find some holes in his thinking. But science, unlike many religions, is not stagnant but ever-evolving. Evolution is built into it because it’s based on human curiosity and exploration. Religion is based on ideas that are not supposed to change. It’s the permanence and eternalness of it that brings people comfort.

But outside of science and religion, there are thoughts about life and death and the universe that are brought about by wonderment and exploration. Many of these ideas we may have sound irrational but maybe, just maybe, it’s because science hasn’t figured out how it works yet. Like knowing when you’re being watched. Hood’s book does not take into account that there are still many, many things yet to be discovered through science and some phenomenon that today look like scientific impossibilities might yet be measured and observed.

For the most part, though, The Science of Superstition is a good book to start understanding why someone you know is more interested in astrology than astronomy and similar irrational pursuits. And, if you still want to participate in a religion after reading the book, his site has this handy and humorous chart on which one to pick.

*Apparently, babies get quickly bored when shown the same image over and over and stop paying attention to it. So they measure the babies attention to diagrams to see if they think they are seeing the same thing (drawings of square vs. the Kaniza emergent square).

The world today: giant earthquakes, volanic eruptions, and fireballs!


Cool video on assistive technology … takes a few minutes to load.

… and can redesign the Tokyo railway system:

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