Tag Archives: Inspiration

When Has a Dragon Ever Died of the Poison of a Snake?

It has been a very public week for victims of horrible crimes. Dzhjokhar Tsarnaev’s victims spoke at his formal death sentencing, and the families of the Charletson Massacre’s victims have been in the national media.

Most noted among the Charleston families was Nadine Collier, who said to killer Dylann Roof, “You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. But God forgives you and I forgive you.”

Rebekah Gregory, who lost a leg to Boston Marathon bomber Tsarnaev, struck a very different tone. Looking defiantly at the murderer, she said, “While your intention was to destroy America, what you have really accomplished is actually quite the opposite – you’ve unified us. We are Boston strong, we are America strong, and choosing to mess with us was a terrible idea. So how’s that for your VICTIM impact statement?”

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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?

C.S. Lewis’s Truth-Loving Test

A few months ago, we heard this from Plato. It was his way of determining who loved truth and who didn’t.

What I proposed was having our children be told glorious tales to stir their imaginations, very much stressing all the time that these tales were true, and then seeing which among the children can resist them, can see the logical inconsistencies within these tales, and see all their inconsistencies with other truths that they have been told.

Here’s another truth-loving test, from C.S. Lewis’s book, Mere Christianity. (In the book, he did not propose this as a truth-loving test, but I think it makes an excellent one.)

The real test is this. Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, “Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,” or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible?

I read the quote over at Slacktivist’s blog. He had earlier treated the theme in a wonderful post called Jackie at the crossroads. In that story, a young woman named Jackie has claimed there are poisonous spiders in airport restrooms, former stow-aways on international flights. When she is shown that this is just an urban legend, she has a choice: she can double-down or laughingly admit her gullibility. Her choice is a very clear window on her character.

How about us? When we learn that the rumor we have spread about our political or religious adversaries is unfounded, is our first reaction to be relieved that they are not so bad after all? Or do we double down by finding another way they are so bad, or by calling the refutation “biased” even though it is our own bias that has just been exposed?

Lessons in Humility

Our forebears thought the sky was a solid dome above the Earth, in which the stars were embedded.

By the second century AD, we had realized that the planets were out in space, but we still thought the Earth was the center of the universe.

In 1543, Copernicus published On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, arguing that Earth and the other planets orbit the Sun. This offended our self-image so much that when Galileo supported the idea, we imprisoned him.

The Copernican view was finally accepted, but we still thought we were exceptional because the laws of physics were different on Earth than in the heavens. Isaac Newton changed all that. In 1687, he published Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, proving that a single Law of Gravity could explain movements in both heaven and Earth.

A century after Netwon, thanks to the tireless work of William Herschel and his sister, Caroline, it became known that our solar system is embedded in a gigantic galaxy, the Milky Way. When Friedrich Bessel measured the distance to a nearby star as 11.4 light-years, people were agog.

In 1920, we learned that, not only were we not at the center of the solar system, but our solar system was not at the center of our galaxy. Later in that decade, we would learn that our galaxy was but one among many.

Close on the heels of that discovery, Edwin Hubble proved that the universe is expanding. We were becoming a smaller part of the whole all the time. And at an accelerating rate: at the close of the century, we realized that the universe is flying apart faster and faster.

Working the expansion backward, Alexander Friedmann had suggested, in 1922, that the universe could have been born in what we now call the Big Bang. Even Einstein initially called the idea “suspicious” but by mid-century, it had begun to take hold. Apparently we are even less than the dust of the Earth: we are detritus from a random quantum fluctuation.

In 1600, Giodano Bruno got himself burned at the stake for, among other heresies, suggesting that the stars were suns much like ours, with inhabited planets. It was not until the time of America’s Civil War that conclusive proof was found that he was right about the suns, and not until after the first Gulf War that he was right about the planets.

When I was a schoolboy, I was taught that our world was almost certainly the only inhabited one in the universe. The scientific consensus now seems to be that life on other worlds is inevitable.

I was also taught humans were the only animals who could reason or use tools. I just finished a book about an African Grey parrot who could hold an intelligent conversation, in English, infused with a mischievous sense of humor. Many species have been observed not only to use but to make tools.

Our self-concept has come a long way from being the apex of creation, in a domed terrarium made especially for us to inhabit, only a few thousand years ago. We now know we are specs on a pale blue dot that orbits a larger, white dot that occupies a not-so-special place two thirds of the way down one of the spiral arms of a galaxy that has, at its center, a supermassive black hole.


rsz_black-hole-milky-way

Coming toward us at 110 kilometers per second is the Andromeda galaxy — three times as large at the Milky Way and with its own supermassive black hole. Fortunately, space is so vast that it will be 4 billion years before the galaxies collide. Our best guess is that when they do, the Earth will first be pulled toward the dual black holes and then ejected to intergalactic space.

But nobody will be here to witness Earth’s ignominious end. Three billion years earlier (only a billion from now) the radiation from the Sun will have grown so intense that it will have extinguished the last spark of life on our planet.

Life was born here 3.5 billion years ago, and has less than 1 billion to go. Now that we are well past middle age, perhaps it is time to reflect on our accomplishments.

If we can be proud of anything, it is this: that we have discovered the vastness of space and time in the universe, and our correspondingly humble position in it. After centuries of fighting against our change in circumstance, we may also be proud of having exchanged our offense for awe.

Plato’s Truth-Loving Test

Love them or hate them, standardized tests are part of growing up. To get into college, most students take the SAT. To gain admission to graduate school, you might take the GRE, LSAT, MCAT, or who know what else.

Inasmuch as higher education is usually required for leadership positions in our society, these tests are gate-keepers to leadership. They do a good job of measuring intelligence, but is intelligence what we want most in our leaders?

It seems to me that the problems in America today are not due to our leaders being stupid. On the contrary, I suggest that many politicians who take stupid positions are very smart. Take an issue like climate change. There’s a lot of money at stake and politicians know it. They also know exactly how informed or uninformed the public is, and just how flagrantly they (the politicians) can deny reality. They’re very smart about that. The problem is that they have insufficient love for truth.

And what about the polarization of public discourse that is so notorious right now? As any reader of PolitiFact.com or FactCheck.org knows, much of the dysfunction and hate is fueled by outright lies. Again: not enough love of the truth.

What I want is a leader who loves the truth — whose highest aim is to discover what it is, so that he may promote and serve it.

We have standardized tests that help smart people rise to the top. How can we identify people who love truth?

Plato solved that problem 2,400 years ago. As dramatized in Plato at the Googleplex (a book you’ll be hearing more from on this blog), Plato says,

What I proposed was having our children be told glorious tales to stir their imaginations, very much stressing all the time that these tales were true, and then seeing which among the children can resist them, can see the logical inconsistencies within these tales, and see all their inconsistencies with other truths that they have been told (Republic 413c-414a).

What an interesting idea! Do you think that would be a good test of truth-loving? It makes sense that people who will not be enticed by attractive, heroic lies would be leaders we can trust, doesn’t it?

Maybe the question is moot. Maybe Plato could engineer this test in his ideal city, but the suggestion is not practical today.

Or is it?

I suggest that Plato’s test is embedded everywhere in our society, but most of us don’t realize it. To know whether we have passed his test, all we must do is ask whether we have found the flaws in our most cherished beliefs — and all beliefs have flaws.

How many of us have esteemed as a true friend one who incisively criticizes our culture? How many of us Americans have seen how un-democratic it is to arrogate the maximum power for America in the assembly of nations? How many of us have seen the contradictions and cruelties in the scriptures we learned at our mother’s knee?

How many of us would vote for a politician who openly does any of these things?

Plato’s test is already in place. How many of us will care about the results — in our leaders or in ourselves?

 

McDonald’s and the Act of Uniformity

Have you ever heard laments like these?

With Wal-Mart forcing the mom-and-pops out of business, the whole country is becoming the same. Soon there will be no such thing as regional character.

Exports from the American entertainment industry are slowly making the rest of the world just like us.

There are 3,000 McDonald’s restaurants in Beijing! American culture is polluting the world.

(There’s even a word for that last one: McDonaldization!)

As communication and trade increase, it is inevitable that ideas and culture will diffuse like dye through water. It can seem that where we used to have enchanting red liquid over here and emerald green liquid over there, now we just have a brown puddle.

Not so fast. I suggest that this so-called homogenization is actually bringing us diversity, not uniformity.

The subject came to mind when a book called Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices happened to catch my eye this morning. I Googled around about its author, Thomas Brooks, and discovered that he was a “non-conformist” Puritan minister. What that means, among other things, was that he ran afoul of the Act of Uniformity passed by the English Parliament in 1662. Although he was a devout Christian, he apparently didn’t pray in the right way, or believe the right things, and he lost his job — he and about 2,000 others.

Combined with other Acts passed at about the same time, the Act of Uniformity not only  restricted church offices to conforming Anglicans, but likewise limited opportunities in the military and government.

I suppose that was better than a few years earlier, when people of the wrong Christian faith could be executed, but still…

Obviously the England of 1662 was still rife with in-tribe / out-tribe psychology. That’s hardly surprising: most people’s knowledge of Catholics, the French, and other out-tribers was limited to ugly rumor.

Today, thanks to the internet and the dreaded globalization, we are no longer as xenophobic. To be sure, we still trust our own kind more than outsiders, but the situation is not nearly as bad as it used to be. Dealing with people around the globe has taught many of us that people on the other side of the Earth can be good people, too. Beyond that, we are coming to appreciate and welcome each others’ cultures.

Last November, my software team in Massachusetts celebrated a small Thanksgiving feast over video-conference with the other half of our team, located in India. At Christmas, we exchanged gifts.

As people are being mixed together more, we’re also discovering that our old prejudices against foreigners, people of lower classes, people of higher classes, homosexuals, people with disabilities — really prejudices against anyone — just don’t make sense.

It’s hard to imagine, but just 100 years ago we had a president (Woodrow Wilson) who said, “The white men were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation … until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the southern country.” And that was from a Northern progressive! He was one of the liberal ones!

How have we freed ourselves from such insanity? Only as commerce and the internet have thrown us together.

Perhaps the world is becoming more homogenized, but only in a coarse-grained way. At the fine-grained level where people live, we are more diverse than ever.

Paying it Forward at Starbucks

I got an early start this morning and decided to stop by Starbucks and write a blog post. What I had planned to write about went out the window as I stood in line.

As the man in front of me reached for his wallet, the barista told him that someone had left a gift card with $250 on it to “pay it foward” so his coffee was covered.

Later, while I was sitting in the shop, I would overhear that Mr. Pay-it-Forward has been doing this every Christmas for years, and that there’s actually a second person in town who does the same thing.

The customer in front of me, whose purchase would have amounted to about $5, was moved to add $40 to the gift card. I saw other people do what they could to keep the pay-it-forward momentum going, either tipping more generously than usual or adding to the card.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is how it’s done. Yes!