R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

It’s a curious and depressing fact that while religious people very generally expect that their beliefs will be respected, they seldom show much inclination to respect the views of others.

It sometimes happens that someone makes a statement about “God.” This happens from time to time on Facebook, for example. After making such a statement, the person who made it may become quite upset if anyone expresses disagreement. They feel they should be entitled to make statements about “God” in a public forum, and they also feel that no one should disagree — or that if one disagrees, one ought politely to remain silent, out of respect.

The notion that atheists are entitled to the same respect seems not to occur to them.

Let’s be clear about this: If you so much as mention “God” in a way that indicates you believe in such a thing, you are guilty of the same faux pas that you’re happy to accuse others of. You are directly disputing the understanding of the universe that is held (with, I might add, a great deal more supporting evidence than you can marshal) by atheists. Merely by mentioning “God” as anything more than a ridiculous and unsupported hypothesis, you are stating categorically that atheists are wrong.

Now, either it is disrespectful to suggest that someone’s understanding of the world is wrong, or it isn’t. If it isn’t wrong to do that, then you have no business whatever whining when I point out that your statements about “God” are entirely unsupported by a shred of evidence, and on that basis are not to be taken seriously. If, on the other hand, it is wrong to make such a suggestion, then you simply cannot mention “God” or your notions about “God” in any public forum, because to do so would violate your own standard of conduct.

In general, I approve of the idea that when one sees or hears somebody making a possibly dangerous mistake in their thinking about the world, one ought to correct them. That’s the friendly thing to do. If your friend thinks that the way to back a car out of the garage is to put it in low rather than reverse, you need to explain to them that they’re about to put a hole in the wall of the garage. If your friend thinks that children shouldn’t be vaccinated because vaccines cause autism, the friendly thing is to explain to them that they’re entirely wrong, that they’re putting their children at risk. If your friend thinks they can safely handle a pistol without checking to see whether it’s loaded — well, in that case, you need new friends, because the ones you have are dangerous and probably won’t last long.

But when your friend has a wrong idea not about automobiles, vaccines, or firearms, but about the whole entire universe, somehow you’re expected to remain silent, because that’s the polite, friendly thing to do.

I don’t get it.

In the Dark

In the 18th century, physicists were trying to understand what happened when things burned. It was theorized that combustible substances such as wood and coal contained something called phlogiston, which was released during burning. This theory seemed to explain some of the results of experiments, but of course it was completely wrong.

In what may turn out to be a similar flight of fancy, physicists today are enamored of the theory of dark matter. Like phlogiston, dark matter itself has never been observed; it’s proposed as a way to explain certain things that have been observed.

The problem that the dark matter theory attempts to address is quite real. The problem is that the outer parts of galaxies are spinning too rapidly. It’s possible to measure the spin of some galaxies — those that are tilted so that we observe them somewhat edge-on. This is possible because the light on one edge of the galaxy (the edge that’s spinning toward us) will be blue-shifted, while the opposite edge is red-shifted because it’s receding from us. This is basic physics. I couldn’t do the math, but I understand the concept.

We can also estimate the mass of a galaxy. This is done by estimating the number of stars in it (based on its brightness) and multiplying that estimate by the average mass of a star. Mass causes gravitational attraction, and gravity causes stuff to orbit the center of mass, in exactly the way that the Earth orbits the sun. The speed of the orbiting body depends on both the diameter of the orbit and the amount of mass around which the object is orbiting. Again, I couldn’t do the math, but this is basic stuff.

When the rate of spin of the outer parts of nearby spiral galaxies is calculated, it quickly becomes apparent that there’s not nearly enough mass to explain the speed of rotation. This means one of two things: Either there’s a bunch of mass that we don’t see, or we don’t understand how gravity works at galactic distances. The idea that the law of gravity needs to be revised is not popular, though some theorists are working on it. The general consensus is that these galaxies are embedded in a halo of dark matter — stuff we can’t see, but that adds significantly to the mass of the galaxy.

One idea, which seems not to be panning out, is that galaxies are studded with “brown dwarfs.” A brown dwarf is a a lot bigger than Jupiter, but a lot smaller than the sun. It’s small enough that nuclear fusion has failed to ignite; thus it doesn’t put out much in the way of visible light. It’s brown, and it’s a dwarf star. But while there are certainly brown dwarfs floating around, a survey of our own galactic neighborhood suggests that there aren’t nearly enough of them to account for the rapid spin of spiral galaxies like our own.

A more popular notion is that the dark matter is a cloud of non-baryonic particles. Protons, neutrons, and electronics are baryonic; they’re the stuff we’re made of. We can’t see this non-baryonic matter, so the theory goes, because it neither absorbs nor emits light. However, it has mass, so it generates a gravitational field. (Don’t ask me whether “generates a gravitational field” is how physicists would talk about it. I don’t know.)

I have no problem with the idea that the universe is filled with particles that we know nothing about. But I have yet to read an explanation of how this massive dark matter is supposed to be behaving.

I also have a problem with how confident some authorities are that such a mysterious thing exists. In poking around on the Web, I quickly found a site (detailing the findings of the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe) that asserts, baldly, this: “The WMAP science team has … completed a census of the universe and finds that dark matter (matter not made up of atoms) is 24.0%.” Well, imagine that. They can’t see it; they don’t know what its properties might be; but they’ve done a census. Shee-it.

The idea that they’re treating as gospel is this: The clouds of dark matter are supposed to produce gravitational fields within which the baryonic matter (clouds of hydrogen, to start with) congregates, condenses into stars, and so forth. But if this cloud is imagined as consisting of zillions of tiny particles (perhaps not much larger than a proton), it doesn’t seem, to my muddled way of thinking, to be behaving in a sensible way. Some of these particles will be moving rather rapidly; some will be moving more slowly. That seems indisputable. Those that are moving too rapidly will have enough velocity to escape from the cloud. They’ll be gone. So there’s a maximum velocity that the dark matter particles (they’re called WIMPS — weakly interacting massive particles) can have, and some will be dawdling along more slowly than that.

Baryonic matter forms clumps under the influence of gravity. We call these clumps stars. So why hasn’t the dark matter formed clumps? Any variation in density of a dark matter cloud, no matter how slight, will gradually attract more and more of the slower-moving WIMPS. After a few billion years you won’t have a diffuse cloud anymore; you’ll have clots of the stuff. These clots will be drifting around within our galaxy. They will be invisible, but they will cause gravitational perturbations, because some of them will be rather massive.

No such perturbations are observed.

Not only that, but a massive object like a star will naturally acquire its own halo of dark matter. Slower-moving WIMPS that drift in close to our own sun won’t have enough velocity to escape. And we know for certain that this hasn’t happened. If there was any such halo around the sun, Newton’s law of gravitation would never have been discovered, because the planets in our own solar system would be orbiting more quickly than they are.

Thus the theory requires that dark matter (a) remain in a stable galaxy-sized cloud rather than drifting off into the cosmos but also (b) not form clumps. We haven’t the least idea what the characteristics of WIMPS might be, so we can’t actually rule that out, but it does seem rather implausible, doesn’t it?

When rain falls on a large flat paved area, you’ll soon see shallow pools of water. The pavement is never perfectly flat. I find myself wondering why physicists think the universe itself (spacetime) is perfectly flat except where there’s mass. One way of looking at gravitation (this is Einstein stuff) is that a massive object distorts spacetime. The sun, for instance, creates the three-dimensional equivalent of a large and very deep dimple in the fabric of spacetime. That’s what gravity is.

But why should we assume that mass is the only thing that can warp spacetime in this way? The supposed galactic halo might not be a cloud of massive particles at all; it might simply be a slightly lower place in spacetime, a sort of shallow 3D puddle of slightly enhanced gravity. The cloud of primordial hydrogen would naturally coagulate in such places, and that would create galaxies. It’s known that there are slight anisotropies (uneven places) in the hot, dense plasma that erupted in the Big Bang. Why shouldn’t some gravitational anisotropies still be hanging around?

Of course there’s no physics theory that would explain such a gravitational puddle — but there’s no theory that explains what dark matter is, either. We can be fairly sure it’s not phlogiston, but beyond that, who knows?

Long Ago & Far Away

Tonight I’m reading From Eternity to Here by Sean Carroll. It’s another of those books on physics and cosmology for the layperson — no math, just occasional diagrams. The book’s mandate or organizing principle is to attempt to unravel what time actually is. This is a fairly profound mystery, and Carroll seems well qualified to tackle it.

And yet, in his discussion we find odd lacunae. (Sorry; my erudition is showing. That’s Latin for “gaps.”) In Chapter 3 he discusses the Big Bang and the subsequent history of the universe. The current theory is not only that the universe started in a hot, dense form and has been expanding ever since, but that the expansion is speeding up. This is the opposite of what one would expect: Gravitational attraction, however tenuous it may be at vast distances, should be slowing the expansion.

Nobody really knows why the expansion is speeding up. The explanation, such as it is, rests on the concept of “dark energy,” a mysterious force that pushes galaxies gently away from one another.

On page 58, Carroll says this: “We don’t know much about dark energy, but we do know two very crucial things: It’s nearly constant throughout space (the same amount of energy from place to place), and also nearly constant in density through time (the same amount of energy per cubic centimeter at different times).”

Implicit in that rather remarkable sentence is the notion that we (meaning scientists) can know what is going on at places that are very distant (millions of light-years away) and very remote in time (billions of years ago). And how, you might well ask, can we be certain of such things?

The short answer is because distant galaxies are speeding away from us at higher than expected velocities. Ah, but how do we measure the speed of galaxies? The operative theory is this: When an object is traveling away from you, the light it emits is red-shifted. That is, the wavelengths get longer. This is the Doppler Effect, and it’s too well known to be worth explaining here. The red shift will tell us how fast a galaxy is receding from us, but it won’t tell us how far away the galaxy is. The distance is calibrated by observing Type I supernovae in the distant galaxies. The theory is that a supernova of this type always produces about the same amount of light. And that’s a great deal of light — an individual supernova can be seen across untold millions of light-years. By measuring the amount of light we’re seeing from a supernova, we can figure out how far away it must be. We then correlate that distance with the observed red shift of the galaxy where it’s located, and presto, we know that distant galaxies are speeding up.

But you’ll notice that this idea rests on two pillars of theory: first, that nothing other than the velocity relative to an Earth observer of that distant galaxy could cause a red-shift of its light; and second, that Type I supernovae were just as bright two billion years ago as they are today.

Both of these pillars rest, in turn, on the idea that the universe in distant places and at distant times was fundamentally the same, with respect to its physical laws, as it is in our neighborhood today. By that measure, what Carroll has said is a tautology. He’s saying, in essence, “We know that physical laws in distant places and at distant times have always been the same as they are here and now — and therefore, we can deduce that dark energy in distant places and at distant times has always been the same.”

What if the speed of light were increasing gradually over the course of billions of years? That would cause a red shift: Light that has been traveling for a long, long time would have started its journey at a slower speed. As the speed of light increases, the wavelengths will get longer. Just to be clear, this is only my pet theory, and there’s probably something horribly wrong with it that any grad student in the physics department could explain. I’m not that smart! The point I’m making is that the theory rests on an assumption, namely, that the speed of light has always been the same as it is today. And we can’t demonstrate that, because we’re only here today. We weren’t there two billion years ago.

I’m not a physicist. I don’t even try to tackle the books with the math. It’s entirely possible that Carroll is skipping some very solid experimental evidence in this book because he judges (correctly) that his readers won’t be equipped to understand it. But here again, as in other similar books I’ve read, I sometimes have the feeling that too much is being taken for granted. Is that a characteristic of the books, or is it a characteristic of contemporary physics itself? I don’t know.

Much of modern physics is based on mathematical models of phenomena. The observations that are made tend to be really quite tenuous. A quick trip down the aisle in your local library will present you with a handful of books that will tell you all about black holes, including the fact that there is a massive black hole at the center of our own galaxy. What is less often emphasized in these books is the fact that no human being has ever seen a black hole! Everything we know about them, or think we know, is based on mathematical models.

It is known that the mathematical models sometimes fail. On page 60, Carroll mentions one of the more spectacular failures. The theory being that perhaps the energy of virtual particles (quite possibly a real phenomenon, though not directly observable) is the source of dark energy, physicists have calculated the amount of “vacuum energy” that would arise from the froth of virtual particles. Unfortunately, the calculations show that this vacuum energy should be about 10 to the 105th power joules per cubic centimeter, when what is actually observed is a vacuum energy of about 10 to the minus 15 joules per cubic centimeter. (Don’t ask me what joules are; I don’t know. I know what a cubic centimeter is.) This is a discrepancy of 10 to the 120th power.

Clearly, there’s something wrong with the math, or more likely with the theory that the math attempts to explain. But the math that tells us how black holes must behave? Oh, yeah, we’ve got that one nailed down — right, Mr. Hawking?

Phun with Physics

As I suggested yesterday, human intuition gives us a lousy set of tools with which to understand the underlying nature of physical reality. The English language supplies a few pitfalls too. Last night I started reading Black Holes & Time Warps by Kip S. Thorne. Thorne is described on the back cover as the Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics, Emeritus, at the California Institute of Technology, so we can fairly conclude that he knows whereof he speaks. And yet, toward the end of Chapter 1, we find this odd passage (italics in the original):

“…most physicists are driven to believe that these sequences [of laws] are converging toward a set of ultimate laws that truly governs the Universe, laws that force the Universe to behave the way it does, that force … the Sun to burn nuclear fuel, force black holes to produce gravitational waves when they collide, and so on.”

I may be only a poor dumb shitkicker from Illinois, but I know that’s just plain wrong. The way that’s phrased, it seems to say (quite clearly) that the laws of physics that physicists strive to understand are an outside force, a force that compels, for example, an electron or a photon to behave the way it does. But that’s not the case at all. There is no outside force that compels a thing we call an electron to behave like an electron rather than like a quark, a muon, or a neutrino.

An electron is not even a thing in that sense, and the laws of physics are not laws in that sense. They don’t compel any fundamental particle to behave the way it does. Rather, the laws of physics are simply descriptions of what happens. There is no thing called an electron that behaves in any manner at all. What we call an electron is, on the contrary, a tiny portion of a vast interaction (ultimately, of the whole Universe) that we have isolated for purposes of analysis and description. But it isn’t a separate thing. An electron never exists in isolation, because there isn’t any isolation in which it could exist. We can only describe it in terms of what it does with respect to the nucleus of an atom, or in terms of what it does when it releases or absorbs a photon, or whatever. Absent these interactions, the term “electron” would be meaningless.

This may sound rather mystical, and in a sense it is. The Universe is all a single thing. We can describe how it behaves. It vibrates. It resonates. It pushes and pulls at itself in unbelievably complex ways. But there is no force compelling it to behave in that manner. It just does. Even that sentence (“It just does”) is wrong, because there isn’t any “it” that “does” anything. The Universe is those vibrations and resonances. That’s all it is. It’s like the ringing of a bell — but there’s no bell.

Okay, I didn’t intend that to be a pun, but I’m not going to back away from it.

Gradually, over the course of eons or over a stretch of billions of light-years, the vibrations and resonances may change. The Universe may come to behave in some other manner — because there are no “laws” that would prevent it.

Will physicists ever be able to derive a tidy set of equations that perfectly describe every interaction that can conceivably occur in the Universe, past, present, and future? I doubt it. Not just because of the limitations of our instruments or the limitations of our mental abilities but because the Universe is continuous rather than discrete. (There is a notion floating around that at the deepest level space-time is digital — composed of discrete cells. I’ll point out the deep flaws in that idea some other time.)

Every time physicists think they have a law of nature nailed down, a few years later they have to add a fudge factor, because the real Universe doesn’t know anything about these supposed laws. The fudge factors have come to resemble the epicycles of Ptolemaic astronomy, and that analogy may suggest that physicists don’t yet know as much as they think they do.

Thorne’s book begins with an as-if science fiction tale in which a spaceship crewed by humans investigates a few black holes. The weirdness that they encounter is fascinating, but Thorne barely mentions the caveat: No human has ever observed a black hole. We don’t actually know how matter, energy, and spacetime behave in such a bizarre region. All we have are the equations. We know that the equations are very good at predicting a bunch of stuff, such as how the light from a distant star is bent by the sun’s gravitational field. But everything to do with black holes and the Big Bang is pure extrapolation. In such extreme circumstances, what other fudge factors, at present unknown, might become huge? We don’t know.

Sure, if there were physical laws that compelled the entire Universe, everywhere and forevermore, to behave in thus-and-such a fashion, then we could extrapolate with confidence. But no compulsion is involved, because there’s no bell, only the ringing. All we have, and all we will ever have, is description.

Nuts & Bolts

Books for the interested layperson on the theory of relativity are not in short supply. The local library has a shelf full of them, and I don’t think that’s entirely because I live in Livermore, with an important national laboratory just a couple of miles down the street.

A physics book with equations in it would be completely over my head. But I’d sure appreciate a book that didn’t cut corners. I’m not looking for Relativity for Dummies.

Case in point: The classic thought experiment in which I fly past you in a spaceship at a significant fraction of the speed of light. From your point of view, a clock on my spaceship is running slower than your clock. However, from my point of view your clock is running slower than mine.

I get that. And every book on the subject will tell me that that’s what will happen. (I won’t say they explain it, because there isn’t really an explanation, is there? That’s just the way the universe operates.) What none of the books I’ve read bother to explain is what happens when I turn my spaceship around, come back to where you’re standing, stop the ship, and hop out carrying my clock. We then compare the two clocks.

Which clock will be faster or slower? Neither answer makes sense. The only answer that makes sense is, the two clocks will show exactly the same time. But that doesn’t make sense either. At what point did each clock speed up relative to the other clock? I’d sure like to know.

Here’s another slippery bit. Any number of books will tell you that the speed of light is an absolute. No matter how fast you’re going relative to anybody else, you’ll always measure the speed of light to be the same. If the book is trying to be meticulous, it will say, “the speed of light in a vacuum.” It’s known that light slows down when traveling through a medium such as air, water, or glass; if it didn’t, your glasses wouldn’t work, and telescopes wouldn’t work either.

But wait: There’s no such thing as a vacuum! Our current understanding of quantum mechanics suggests that even a “vacuum” is full of virtual particles, which pop into existence and vanish too quickly for us sluggardly humans to observe them. But a photon is pretty fast, isn’t it? What effect might those virtual particles have on a photon? Even if the answer is, “no effect,” a supposed vacuum is also full of other photons (to say nothing of gravitational waves and neutrinos) zipping around and through one another. Even in a black box from which all the air has been pumped out, the walls of the box will be shedding infrared photons to beat the band, and billions of neutrinos will be zipping through the box as if the walls weren’t even there.. Is that a vacuum?

Here’s the kicker, though. Einstein arrived at the theory of relativity (according to the book I’m reading) with the aid of his intuition, which assured him that the laws of the physical universe must be simple and beautiful. Unfortunately, one of the things we definitely know about physics is that our intuitions are very seldom of any value when it comes to understanding the universe. Light is a wave, and also a particle. Intuition will tell you that’s flatly impossible, that it has to be one thing or the other, and indeed physicists rejected the notion for a couple of centuries — but your intuition is wrong. Your intuition will tell you that a particle such as an electron must be at some specific location in space at all times, but that’s wrong too. An electron is sort of smeared or spread out, except when it isn’t.

Why should the laws that govern the physical universe be either simple or beautiful in the way that “simple” and “beautiful” are understood by the bags of protoplasm squidging around on this particular unimportant little planet? In all likelihood, they aren’t. Physicists are now aware of about 30 mathematical constants — pure numbers — that govern the way the universe works, and there appears to be no sensible reason why any of those numbers has the value that it does. Physicists have no theory that would even remotely begin to explain those numbers.

There’s also the fact that while both general relativity and quantum mechanics make excellent predictions, predictions that can be confirmed experimentally, those two theories are not compatible with one another. But why should we expect that they would be compatible? Just because we humans want them to be compatible?

Maybe the universe is just plain messy. But Relativity for Dummies is not going to tell us that.

Are We Having Fun Yet?

Since this blog is mostly about writing, I’m going to try to turn this anecdote into a writing tip, but you’ll have to bear with me for a minute. A few months ago I joined the local Unitarian Church. As a card-carrying atheist, my choices in the Sunday morning worship department are are rather limited; fortunately, the local UU’s, as we’re supposed to call ourselves, are an active congregation, very inclusive and welcoming — and I get to practice my sight-singing with the secular humanist hymns.

We have an excellent minister (he’s leaving in July — boo, hiss!), but sometimes the services are presented by members of the congregation, or by guests. Yesterday we had a guest, an aspiring Unitarian minister named Claire Eustace. Her announced topic for the sermon was “Let’s Play!” Now, I’m one of the more playful geezers you’re likely to run into, so I was ready to be inspired.

Except, not. Ms. Eustace began her sermon with a long list of the awful things that are going on in the world. Our alleged president was mentioned. Global warming was mentioned. Discrimination against LGBTQ people was mentioned. I’m sitting there thinking, if you’ll pardon the phrase, “What the fuck?”

After a couple of minutes she suggested that we all wave our arms and make silly noises while we paint the sanctuary with imaginary colors — quite silly, but at least she’s getting onto the topic now. But no. After that we’re back to another litany of misery courtesy of the really awful world we all live in. I’m dyin’ inside.

And then, mirabile dictu, she mentions how important it is to be spontaneous. This was my cue. Fortunately, I was on an aisle seat. I jumped up and started dancing down the aisle snapping my fingers, back to the back of the sanctuary and out the door. I wandered around outside for ten minutes and went back in just as she was finishing.

It’s not often you get to make a post-modern editorial statement on the spur of the moment while also saving your sanity, but I was locked and loaded. I wanted to get out of there!

My read of the situation is that most likely Ms. Eustace is a painfully serious person, and was trying to apply somebody’s advice (perhaps the advice of a therapist) that she lighten up. But here’s the thing about play: Play is not — repeat, NOT — a way of giving ourselves a break from the soul-destroying crises to which we’re exposed in the daily news. Play is just play. That’s all it is.

A baby goat does not frolic to distract itself from the knowledge that it may soon be eaten by a puma. It frolics quite simply because frolicking feels good. That’s all play is, Ms. Eustace. It’s about feeling good. It’s not a response to anything; it is an end in itself.

Consider how we humans use the word. We play board games and card games. We play music. And sometimes we go to a play, where the people onstage play parts. Why do we do all this stuff? Because it’s fun.

The lesson for me, as a writer, is that if I’m not having fun writing, I’m doing it wrong. Writing is not about making a point. It’s not about proving anything, or inspiring people. Nothing like that. Writing fiction is a form of play.

That doesn’t mean it’s always easy! Sometimes writing is painful. But I would hope that it’s painful because the paragraph or the chapter is going badly, not because I’m writing about things that are inherently painful. I know some writers devote themselves to exploring painful emotions, impossible family conflicts, and so forth. I have nothing to say to those writers, other than to misquote Fleetwood Mac: “You go your way, I’ll go mine.”

For me as a reader, if a novel doesn’t shine with a spirit of playfulness, I’m going to set it down and not pick it up again. We can’t all be Terry Pratchett, but life is too short to spend it grinding around in the muck.

The Fact of Coherence

Einstein once said (I think it was Einstein, anyway), “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” The universe we live in is really a very strange place, and the deeper physicists dig, the more strange it appears. And yet, everywhere we look within the strangeness, we find surprising patterns of regularity. That’s what Einstein was talking about.

I have a sort of half-formed idea about this. I present it not as a statement of fact, merely as a mild observation. Make of it what you will.

I got to thinking about this last month while trying to work through a personal dilemma (the details aren’t important) by consulting the Tarot and the I Ching. Now, any scientist who knows that the sun comes up in the East will assure you that the results you get by shuffling a deck of cards and then laying out ten or twelve of them are entirely random. Likewise casting the I Ching — toss three coins six times, and the results will be entirely random.

And yet, these oracle devices seem to work pretty well for me. As a rock-ribbed atheist, I don’t attribute the apparently meaningful outcomes to the guidance of invisible spirit entities. That would be very silly. But when you ask the I Ching whether to concentrate on music or fiction writing and you get a text that refers specifically to music … what is an atheist to think about this?

As we all know, the Second Law of Thermodynamics assures us that over time, in any closed system, entropy (that is, randomness) increases. Order decreases. And yet, everywhere we look in the universe, we see order.

A cosmology book I was reading a couple of months ago pointed out that at the time of the Big Bang, the distribution of particles in the universe was in a state of very high entropy. The distribution of particles was pretty much the same everywhere. It was smooth. We know this, because when we look at the cosmic background radiation we see that it’s pretty much the same in every direction. However, at the time of the Big Bang the force of gravity was in a state of extremely low entropy. That is, there was a huge amount of potential energy in the form of gravity, which began to turn into actual energy as bits of the early universe started clumping together. If gravity had already been in a state of high entropy, stars and galaxies would never have formed.

As an aside, this book explained that life on Earth doesn’t exist by virtue of the energy the sun shines down upon us, in spite of what you’re taught in biology class. In fact, the amount of energy on the surface of the Earth is pretty much constant. At night, just as much energy is radiated away into space as was absorbed during the day. What the sun actually sheds in our direction is low entropy.

The low entropy of gravitation was not, of course, the only way in which the early universe exhibited an extremely regular structure. All of the electrons in the universe (and there are quite a lot of them) are identical, as far as we’re able to determine experimentally. Why are they all the same? There’s no explanation for that; they just are, that’s all. Likewise, the speed of light is a constant. (In fact, there are more than 20 numerical constants — pure numbers — that physicists need in order to describe how the universe works. Physicists have no explanation at all for how those numbers came to have the values that they have.)

The charge of an electron exactly balances the opposite charge of a proton; it isn’t 5/8 of the value of a proton’s charge, or 1.374906 times the value of a proton’s charge. The precise balance of charges between the proton and the electron is about as anti-entropic a phenomenon as you could hope to find. Also the way electrons form shells around atomic nuclei, which is what allows molecules to form and remain stable. Nothing random going on among the electron shells, in spite of the incessant froth of quantum indeterminacy.

Everywhere we look in the universe, we see structure. Galaxies, stars, and planets. The organization of subatomic particles into atoms and molecules. And as we look around at the normal state of affairs on our lovely planet, we see trees, rocks, clouds, hair follicles — structure everywhere!

It may be objected that the existences of trees and hair follicles is accounted for by evolution. And that’s certainly true. Evolution is pretty much a logical necessity, once you have any type of cellular life that is kept organized by large molecules and can reproduce itself. But that fact doesn’t falsify what I’m suggesting; it’s just another example of it. Everywhere that structure can appear, structure appears. Look at a geode sometime. No evolution is involved in the production of geodes — the forces that produce geodes are of an entirely different character from the forces of evolution. Likewise the force of gravity. Gravity has nothing whatever to do with the ability of atoms to gather into large molecules endowed with unique properties. The causes of the structure are different in each case, but in each case, structure arises.

So when I cast the I Ching and get a meaningful answer, the reason it happens isn’t gravity, or evolution, or quantum mechanics. All I can say for certain is that the result of my action has a structure. It appears not to be governed by the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which would dictate that the fall of the coins be entirely random; instead, something different seems to be happening. It’s a pretty darn weak structure, frankly, but it appears to me that the universe is, here as in so many other ways, organizing itself into a regular structure.

Anyway, the Second Law is highly suspect. What it actually says is that entropy increases in a closed system. But we don’t actually know that the universe is a closed system. We don’t know whether the universe is finite (which would make it a closed system) or infinite. What we are fairly sure of is that the structure of subatomic physics — that is, the way electrons and quarks move and interact — has not increased in entropy during the past 3 billion years.

This is not an argument for the existence of “God.” We have no evidence at all that the universe was created. It just is. Nor is it an argument in favor of progress, morality, or anything else, though I’m sure some woolly-minded people would like to think of it that way. I’m just ruminating.

Turn Left at Stop Sign

Some things are more important than selling books.

I’ve been thinking out loud on this blog for some years now. Long-time readers (of whom there may be three or four) will have noticed that last year I repurposed the blog, writing exclusively about writing. This was an attempt (which doubtless would have proved completely ineffectual) to use “social media” to promote the series of novels that I’m planning to publish this year. I don’t tweet, but by golly I blog. Or blob. Or glob.

In view of the current political situation, however, I’m going to have to return to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when I commented about anything and everything. Writers who appreciate my take on other topics will of course want to stick around, and will find occasional posts on writing tucked in amongst the musing, ranting, and other ill-considered verbiage. If you’ve been enjoying the discussion of writing but find that you’re not in sympathy with my political views, all I can say is, “Fine. Go away. And good riddance.”

The time for being accommodating, for “agreeing to disagree,” has passed. It’s time to resist.

I would leave the United States in a hot New York second, but it’s hard to get a resident visa to live anywhere else when you’re retired — or at least, to live anywhere that I’d want to live. You can get a work visa, but even that is difficult to acquire, and I don’t feel much like working full-time now that I’m nearing 70. I could go to college in New Zealand, I’m sure, but when the student visa expired I’d have to come back to the U.S.

So I’m stuck here. And you’re stuck with me. Sound like a plan?

Yardstick? What Yardstick?

How do you measure success? If you’re a writer, or in fact an artist of any kind, this is a treacherous question.

Tonight I glanced at a blog post by Derek Murphy. Derek is a very bright guy and a tireless self-promoter. He designs book covers, he writes his own fiction, he builds websites. I’m sure he does lots of other stuff too. I wish I had his energy! But I’m not sure I agree with his view of success.

Let’s look at a few quotes from his essay.

“If you can’t understand why a book was successful, you’ll never come close to matching its sales.”

“If you covet an author’s success, you need to understand and mimic their book enough to please the same audience.”

“They [authors who “made a product based completely on their assumptions about an ill-defined audience that doesn’t really want it”] won’t be able to get any reviews or even give it away for free. Nobody will ‘get it.’ Much of this could have been solved with excellent cover design and some basic research and author platform set up: but some authors eschew all advice and do it the way they want to. Because they think they know best. If you’re making gut decisions for your book about what you like, you’re probably doing something wrong. You need to focus on what sells….”

“There’s a lot of room at the top: you can make a lot of money with your writing. But you need to learn the rules of the game first.”

The assumption Derek is making here, and what got my hackles up, is the idea that success is measured by how many books you sell. I’m sure a lot of people think of it that way — but it’s wrong.

He’s certainly right that a lot of aspiring writers don’t want to hear suggestions about how they could improve their writing, but that’s a different topic altogether.

I dislike the word “spiritual,” and never use it, so I’m going to grope for an alternative here. Success is measured, or at least defined, internally — not on a spreadsheet. It’s defined by the feeling that you’ve done your best. That you’ve lived up to and perhaps exceeded your own expectations for yourself. That you have been skillful at each and every point in the work you’ve just completed. That you have accomplished what you set out to accomplish. That you have reached or perhaps surpassed the goals that you set for yourself when you began.

Success is when you feel good about your work. When you look at your work and judge that it is good — that it does what you want it to do. Everything else is just dust in the wind.

The danger in focusing on sales figures as a measure of success is that it warps the creative process. If you’re trying, as you write or paint or sing, to sell your work to the greatest number of people, you will make bad decisions. You will harm yourself, and you will harm your readers, viewers, or listeners. You will deprive them, and deprive yourself, of an entire dimension of experience that would otherwise be available. If you’re writing or painting with an invisible audience looking over your shoulder and judging your work, you’re in big trouble.

Of course, most people need to earn a living one way or another, and a great many artists would like to make a living by selling their art. Having a day job is no fun at all, and having to work full-time or even part-time at some menial or demeaning job will wreak havoc with your creativity too! Nobody said living on this planet would be easy. (Actually, Ira Gershwin did say that: “Summertime, and the livin’ is easy. Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high.” But you can’t trust a songwriter.)

I keep coming back to something that Ram Dass said in one of his books. Quoting from memory here, “The only thing you can really contribute to the world is the quality of your own consciousness at any given moment.” If your consciousness is polluted, whether by the need for money or by the fear that your self-esteem will be crushed if not enough people admire you, then that pollution will surely show up in your creative work.

There’s a Zen story — I think it’s a Zen story, anyway, it sounds like one. The young painter goes to the master painter and says, “Please, master — tell me how to paint the perfect painting.” The master replies, “Oh, that’s easy. Just become perfect, and then paint naturally.”

Becoming perfect — well, that’s not going to happen. But getting better can and does happen. Getting better is something that happens inside of you. You can’t measure it, you can only feel it and know it. What’s more, you get to define for yourself what “better” means.

My wish for you is that you become better; that, as you continually get better, you continue to write as well as you can; and that you find, as you do so, an inner reward that deeply satisfies you.

Why Is There Sex?

Pardon me for boasting, but on the way home from the gym this morning I seem to have solved a long-standing problem in evolutionary theory. I don’t think I’ve read this idea anywhere — it just sort of popped up.

The problem is, why does sexual reproduction exist? Evolution is ruthlessly economical. Any behavior that doesn’t “pay off” in terms of reproductive fitness will sooner or later get weeded out. Sexual reproduction is expensive in behavioral terms — all the trouble of finding a mate, fighting off rivals, and so forth. What’s the payoff?

A theory that I have read is that the payoff is protection from microbes. The microbes in your immediate environment, which includes the millions of tiny critters living on your skin right at this moment, breed much faster than you and I do, so they can evolve faster. There’s a kind of arms race going on. Any advantage they gain (in making you sick, which will increase their numbers radically) has to be fought off by your immune system. Sexual reproduction, according to this theory, jumbles up the genes of the next generation, which essentially confuses the microbes. They have to start over, trying to figure out how to make the next generation sick.

I’m sure that’s a fine theory. I’m not a cell geneticist, so I’m not equipped to evaluate it. But here’s a different idea.

When we talk about evolutionary fitness, we’re not really talking about the fitness of a big, strong animal. We’re talking about the fitness of the genes that encode information with which to build a big, strong animal. It’s the fitness of the genes that is crucial in evolution.

In asexual reproduction, the mother passes all of her genes on to her daughter, and so on, unto the nth generation. Because evolution is ruthlessly economical, it will tend to trim away redundant genes. An asexual creature would quite likely have, for instance, only one gene to produce an essential digestive enzyme, because if there was ever a second gene that did that, when the second gene fell apart or got mis-copied, it could never be reconstructed.

Genes do occasionally mutate. Not often, but it happens. And there are, in your genetic makeup and mine, thousands of genes that are essential for the organism to remain alive. You have genes that constructed your heart, your lungs, your skin, and so on. If you had only one copy of each of these genes, any mutation (in the portion of your own developing body that produced egg cells) would be fatal to your offspring. You would never produce any viable children.

But when you have two copies of these important genes, one from your father and one from your mother, a defect in one of the copies is not necessarily fatal to you or to your offspring. If you only have one copy of the gene that makes that essential digestive enzyme, you may never even know it — and half of your children won’t inherit it. True, fatal mutations can still occur. But the redundancy of the genetic information lowers the rate of fatalities due to mutation.

This is all Biology 101. But the essential point is this: From the point of view of your genes (anthropomorphizing a bit here — genes obviously have no point of view), sexual reproduction protects all of them against the occasional fatal “traitor” gene. The healthy genes work together, producing a sexually reproducing species, in order to protect themselves from those occasional traitors.

Q.E.D.