Tag Archives: Beauty

The Comforts of the Multiverse

I’ve  been reading Brian Greene’s The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos. What a wonderful book! This is my third or fourth time through it and I find something new to appreciate each time.

In all likelihood, there are not only multiple universes, but an infinite number of them. This is what most versions of eternal inflation entail. The evidence for inflation grows stronger every year, and eternal inflation is the most likely variety of it.

Greene’s book explores half a dozen versions of the multiverse (multiple, or parallel, universes), and most of them are not mutually exclusive. There could be several flavors of parallelism at work simultaneously.

One likely aspect of the multiverse is what Greene calls the Swiss cheese model, in which our universe is like one of the bubbles in a block of Swiss cheese. The block has always existed, and has always been infinite in extent. (To those who ask, “Where did it come from?” I would reply, “Why should nothing be the default state? If there were nothing, we would be asking, ‘Who took everything away?’ …except we would not be here to ask that.”) The block expands due to processes that I only started to understand on this reading of the book and which I won’t attempt to explain here. In fact, it has always been expanding (but has always been infinite — infinity is a strange thing). Once in a while, a quantum fluctuation causes a “bubble” to form, one of which is our universe. These bubbles are carried away from each other in the expanding block, keeping them as isolated and distinct universes.

Because this has been happening forever, the number of bubble universes is already infinite. An infinite number are yet to come.

This post is not about how all that might work. For now, I only want to dwell on why I find this idea of infinite universes so comforting.

To appreciate it, you first must grasp just what infinity entails. Think of repeating an experiment an infinite number of times. If your experiment is to roll a pair of dice, then every possible outcome would happen at least once. In fact, it would happen an infinite number of times. Double-sixes? An infinite number of them. That’s amazing, but we’re just getting started.

Suppose your experiment is to thoroughly shuffle a deck of cards. Any outcome you can think of will be represented, including the outcome of the deck sorted just as it was when the box was opened: all the spades, followed by all the diamonds, clubs and hearts, and sorted by rank within suit. In fact, that will happen an infinite number of times. It’s harder to believe than getting an infinite number of double-sixes, but it’s true for exactly the same reason. Infinity is really big!

It’s so big that if instead of dice or cards, you were to play with a finite number of atoms arranged in a finite space, then every physically possible arrangement would be among the outcomes of the experiment. What is our universe, but a finite number of atoms in a finite space? Yes, if there are infinitely many universes, then others exactly identical to ours appear an infinite number of times (assuming, Greene hastens to add, that there’s nothing special about ours, and there is no reason to think there is).

Not only that, but there are others identical to ours except for that one detail of ours that bothers you the most.

That is the first comfort: If things have gone badly here, there’s a universe where they went well. An infinite number of them, in fact.

Of course, there’s also a place where they went much, much worse, so in case you’re a glass-half-empty sort of person let’s turn to the second comfort.

The nice thing about eternal inflation is that it will go on without us. Not only that, but when our universe has finally turned cold and dark, other universes will just be getting started, while in others the first life-forms will be starting to stir, just beginning their billion-year climb up the evolutionary ladder first to sentience, then to full awareness of their world, and finally to awestruck wonder at the universe they inhabit.

Why is this a comfort? Sometimes I feel responsible for so much. I have a family that is undergoing a lot of stress at the moment, a job in which I’m behind schedule, a book I’m writing, and even a musical instrument I have neglected for several months. I take my responsibilities seriously, but it’s nice to know that regardless of how well or poorly I do, the multiverse will go on without me.

It does not all depend on me or on you, even though sometimes it feels that way.

Look to the sky on the darkest, starriest night. Think about everything you see repeated in every possible variation, an infinite number of times. Think about the entire history of this universe, again repeated with infinite variations, more beautiful than the simultaneous play of a million kaleidoscopes. To think that all that beauty will continue to multiply with or without you … doesn’t that lighten the load?

Virtue, Gemstones and Art

I used to read to my children from William Bennett’s Book of Virtues. The chapters are sequenced like gemstones on a bracelet: self-discipline, compassion, responsibility, friendship, work, courage, perseverance, honesty, loyalty and faith.

That’s a pretty good list. I especially like the way he leads off. Without self-discipline, compassion and responsibility you won’t get very far with the others.

As inspirational as William Bennett’s collected tales are (and my kids did love them), our understanding of virtue can grow deeper than mere lists of what it means to be good. I love this passage from Ethical Empowerment, by Arthur Schwartz.

Lists of the virtues are not difficult to find.  … Courage, Honesty, Trustworthiness, Resilience, Loyalty, Independence, Selflessness, Perseverance, Wisdom, Compassion. However, is courage or loyalty in support of a brutal, despotic regime a virtue? …   Is honesty a virtue when, in order to be honest, a promise must be broken? Is selflessness a virtue when the devotion to others is so strong that self-sacrifice leads to illness or personal ruination? … And compassion is surely a core principle of morality, but even compassion can turn sour if it is blind to issues of justice or other moral imperatives.

Specific virtues are not autonomous gems but, rather, are expressions of a deeper morality to which they owe their truth. (Kindle location 328, emphasis mine.)

Many of us wish virtues were like gems. Making a difficult moral decision would then be as easy as choosing the shiny pebble from among the dull. Alas; it’s not that simple.

Or maybe it is, but we need more sophistication. While a child may think that the biggest diamond is always the best, a professional diamond cutter balances carat, color, cut, and clarity to produce the most valuable finished product(s) from whatever hunk of compressed carbon was found in the mine.

We all know it’s the same with moral decisions. There are always competing considerations and we must make our best judgment.

As Schwartz says,

Conformity to virtue is by no means a black and white affair and it is, perhaps, more like an aesthetic judgment than it is a calculation, or perhaps it is a bit of both. (Kindle location 326, emphasis mine.)

An aesthetic judgment: life as art.

Art is even more difficult to judge than gemstones. What makes good art? In any medium, there are certain rules: symmetry, variety, novelty, and so on. Yet, art that is perfectly symmetrical is generally bad, unless other virtues such as novelty carry the day. Too much variety can be bewildering. Art that is so utterly novel that it does not connect with anything is not usually successful.

To enjoy art, it helps to be trained to recognize specific virtues in it, but that can’t be the end of the story.

Perhaps it’s the same with moral virtues. If we’re honest or compassionate, chances are good that we’re on the right track, but if we fixate on just a few virtues, we’ll probably miss others.

Virtuous living takes skill, balance and alertness to all the artistic possibilities. It’s hard. Here’s hoping that you become a virtuoso.


Oh, wow!

Oh, wow!

If you enjoyed Daniel Dennett’s Canons of Good Spin last time, you’ll really enjoy a term he unveiled shortly afterward in the same speech: deepity.

A deepity is a proposition that

  • seems to be profound because it is actually logically ill-formed;
  • has at least two readings and balances precariously between them;
  • on one reading is true but trivial; and
  • on the other reading is false but would be Earth-shattering if true.

The true-but-trivial reading is enough to slide it into your brain, where the false reading sneaks out and messes up your head.

Dennett gives one example: Love is just a word.

The first reading would put quotes around love: “Love” is just a word. Yes, it is a word. It has four letters. True and trivial.

The second reading is without the quotes: Love is just a word. As Dennett says, whatever love is, it is not a word. It may be an interpersonal relationship, an emotion, the most wonderful phenomenon in human psychology, or it may be an illusion. But whatever it is, it is not a word. To say it is, is to commit a use-mention error: confusion the use of the word with the mention of it.

Here are more you may have heard.

We’re just arguing over semantics. The confusion here arises because many people don’t know what “semantics” means. They think it means “just words” but it actually means “the meaning of words.”

True but trivial reading: We’re arguing about word choices.

False but profound reading: Discussions about meaning are a waste of time.

Free will and predestination are in tension.

True but trivial reading:  In theology, “free will” and “predestination” are ideas in opposition to each other.

False but profound reading: God predestines us to be saved or damned, but we can choose for ourselves.  

Beauty is only skin-deep.

True but trivial: You can’t see underneath someone’s skin.

False but profound: Beauty does not or should not matter. If you care about it, you are shallow. The fact is that an important part of being human is being attracted to beauty, including beauty in the opposite sex. Furthermore, a person’s supposedly unimportant looks are often the result of choices they have made as a result of their supposedly all-important character. Few people are so irredeemeably ugly that they cannot appear beautiful on the outside if they are beautiful on the inside. In that sense, you can see underneath someone’s skin.

Are there any deepities you would like to add to this list?

31 Days – Sky

When I arrived at work this morning and stepped out of my car, I looked up and saw the sky. It was ordinary enough, but I was reminded of a scene in the movie, Blast from the Past.

In the movie, Brendan Fraser plays a 30-year-old who has spent his entire life in a fallout shelter after a slight misunderstanding about the Russians bombing the United States. The supposed radiation having died down, his father lets him go above-ground for the first time.

SkyOne of the first things he notices is the sky, which of course he has never seen. He stares at it, fascinated, and people ask him what he’s looking at. “Don’t you see?” he asks.

They look up and see nothing.

Find an open space and take a look at the sky sometime. Pick a day when the sky is just a sky — not spectacular. Keep looking until it affects you.

That’s advice I’ve been following more and more lately. If I’m in nature, or even on a parking lot under the sky, I just keep looking until I really see. There is so much beauty and emotional power all around us if we’ll just hold still for a moment.

31 Days – 3 Forest Paintings

If you’ve been following these 31 Days of Wonder closely, you may have noticed that I missed a post on Friday. Here’s an extra one today to make up for it.

I’d like to share with you one of my favorite classical guitar pieces — actually a 3-piece suite called 3 Forest Paintings by KostantinVassiliev.

What always amazes me about music is that the same 12 notes of the chromatic scale are available to everyone, yet most of us could not in a thousand years come up with pieces to match those of accomplished composers. What is it about a good composer’s brain that makes his style unique, and so unattainable by people without his gift? Likewise for the performer, who in these videos is the  very talented Roman Viazovskiy.

31 Days – Crop Circles

If you followed the links at the bottom of yesterday’s post, you saw the wonders of the Julia set. Actually, the Julias are a whole family of sets. Here is one of them. In this representation, a white point is a member of the set. The other points are not, with a darker shade of grey corresponding to rapid disqualification.

A Julia Set

The Julia sets inspired some famous crop circles that I thought you might enjoy. As you probably know, a crop circle is a pattern made in a standing crop. The early ones were just circles, but these days they are much more elaborate.

There is considerable controversy over whether crop circles are produced by humans, aliens, or even Gaia herself. Whatever their origin, they are beautiful works of art, well-qualified for August’s 31 Days of Wonder.

This Julia set-inspired formation appeared right next to Stonehenge (!) in 1996.

Julia Set Crop Circle

What could have caused it? Crop circle researcher Lucy Pringle interviewed an eyewitness who claimed it appeared under a mysterious, swirling mist during daylight hours. Circlemakers.org, a Website for human crop-circle artists, presents a more skeptical interview of someone who claims it was made the night before, by people, and was only noticed during the following day.

Also fun to visit is BLT Research‘s Website, which is largely devoted to the strange attributes of crop circles, which have convinced some people that some of the circles could not be of human origin.

If you just want to look at pretty pictures, CropCircleConnector.com has plenty of them. Enjoy and wonder!




31 Days – The Mandelbrot Set

Mandelbrot Set

This is an oldie but goodie. I’d like to show you a shape that is infinitely complex and also very beautiful, known as the Mandelbrot set.

Regarded from a distance, it looks like a bug with little bugs budding off of it. So what’s so beautiful? Zoom in anywhere along its edge and breathtaking patterns emerge. Most remarkably, you’ll continue to see repetitions of the original bug, but with variations.

In the pictures, the actual Mandelbrot set is the area in black. The colors at other points represent how close those points came to being members of the set. (I’ll explain what that means in a moment.)

Here’s a bug that is a bud off a bud off a bud off I-don’t-know-how-many other buds. For the full sequence that got us here, visit this site.

Mandelbrot Satellite Bug

The repetition and complexity continue literally forever!

Amazingly, the set is described by a simple equation: Zn+1 = Zn2 + C. Don’t worry if you don’t know what that means for now. The only point is that it’s simple, yet it produces an object of infinite complexity. How beautiful!

Let’s look at some videos.

The first video has some baroque music to match the baroque nature of the set, so turn on your speakers! At the beginning, notice how the bugs repeat. There’s a transition to a seahorse patterns that repeats with variation as the magnification increases, and finally an unexpected bug at the end.

Here’s a video that zooms in on another area. By the end, the magnification is so extreme that the original picture would be larger than the entire universe – and the complexity continues unabated.

So what’s going on?

To introduce the idea, consider what happens if you multiply a number by itself umpteen times. Let’s say the number is 2. You’ll get 2, 4, 16, 256 and so on. If you were plotting those number on the number line, you’d bounce along toward infinity. However, if you were to start with 0.1, you’d get 0.1, 0.01, 0.0001, 0.00000001, trending toward zero.

The Mandelbrot set multiples and iterates with a different sort of number called a complex number. If you’re interested in the details, please visit the links below. For now, suffice it to say that while a normal number is placed on a number line, a complex number is graphed on a two-dimensional plane. If you add or multiply complex numbers, you get to a different point on the plane, instead of a different point on the number line.

If the iterations don’t fly toward the infinite distance on the plane, then the complex number you started with is a member of the Mendelbrot set. If they veer toward infinity, then they are not members. On the videos, the different colors correspond to how quickly they fly off.

Here’s the best series of videos I’ve found that explain it all.

  1. Introduction to Complex Numbers
  2. Complex Plane Dynamics
  3. How Julia Set Images are Generated
  4. Mandelbrot Set: How it is Generated