January 17, 2010

New Moon over Abberton Reservoir

This evening a new moon hung low in the sky, reborn after a 3 day absence, a sliver of a crescent sinking until it appeared hazy and almost red. I stopped as I drove across Abberton reservoir to drink in the view. To the left of it hung Mars, shining brightly, their reflections glowing in the almost still waters like smudges on a painters canvas. The sky was clear and Orion to the South, the Pleiades overhead, and the Milky Way were clearly visible. Behind me the glow of Colchester, like a distant fire, lit the sky and the shores of the reservoir.

It was one of those sights I could have gazed at for hours, but the moon was sinking fast and as I neared home it was so low in the sky it disappeared now and again behind the gentle undulations of the Essex countryside.

January 15, 2010

The Wisdom of the Ancients

As far as I understood it in “The Secret Life of Chaos” (previous post), a simple mathematical theory explains the simplicity of the order of the universe. The universe may start out as dust but it is the external influences on all things that make them different. The external influences feed back on the order of things and brings about change. This is what makes chaos out of order, what makes one thing different from another. It seems to me that chaos and order are one and the same thing operating in a cycle.

We humans are here for the same reason a zebra has its stripes. It is the external influences on the order of all things that brought about the formation of our individual cells, our flesh and blood, our ancestors, our world, our universe, in the way we exist in it now.

Not for the first time I began to wonder if I was listening to something from the philosophy of the ancient Chinese rather than to modern science. I got the same feeling when learning something, in my own humble way, about quantum physics.

I was compelled to look through the I Ching (Book of Changes) and I came up with the following extract:

“There are conditions of equilibrium, in which a certain harmony prevails, and conditions of disturbed equilibrium, in which confusion prevails. The reason is that there is a system of order pervading the entire world. When, in accordance with this order, each thing is in its appropriate place, harmony is established. Such a tendency towards order can be observed in nature. The places attract related elements, as it were, so that harmony may come about. However, a parallel tendency is also at work. Not only are things determined by their tendency toward order: they move also by virtue of forces imparted to them, so to speak, mechanically from the outside. Hence it is not possible for equilibrium to be attained under all circumstances, for deviations may occur, bringing with them confusion and disharmony.”

Taken from the Richard Wilhelm translation, Book II, Part I, Chapter 1, p.282

The passage seems to me to explain the science behind chaos and order in a parallel way. The chapter begins by saying,

the Book of Changes makes a distinction between three kinds of change: nonchange, cyclic change, and sequent change. Nonchange is the background against which change is made possible. For in regard to any change there must be some fixed point to which the change can be referred; otherwise there can be no definite order and everything is dissolved in chaotic movement”.

So are we here because of an ordered chaos underlying and forming the universe?

To take the ancient wisdom further, there also seems to be a relationship between the formation of the eight trigrams in the Book of Changes, which form the 64 hexagrams, and the DNA sequence (see here on Wikipedia).

Don’t ask me what it means but,

the codons of a gene are copied into messenger RNA by RNA polymerase. This RNA copy is then decoded by a ribosome that reads the RNA sequence by base-pairing the messenger RNA to transfer RNA, which carries amino acids. Since there are 4 bases in 3-letter combinations, there are 64 possible codons (43 combinations)”.

This is where it starts to go a bit beyond my comprehension.

What I can see, though, is the parallel between this and the explanation of the formation of the trigrams and hexagrams of the I Ching:

From the doubling of the two polar primary forces (yin and yang), there arise four images corresponding with the four seasons. Through the addition of another line, there arise the eight trigrams. This in turn gives us the 64 hexagrams”!

The Chinese aren’t the only people who seem to have had knowledge of things only now being realised in Western science. In ancient India they had knowledge of Fibonacci numbers, which underlie the Golden Ratio (see here on Wikipedia) . . . but that’s another subject matter.

January 14, 2010

The Secret Life of Chaos

Broadcast: BBC4 Thursday 14 January 2010.

The Secret Life of Chaos.

Chaos theory has a bad name, conjuring up images of unpredictable weather, economic crashes and science gone wrong. But there is a fascinating and hidden side to Chaos, one that scientists are only now beginning to understand.

It turns out that chaos theory answers a question that mankind has asked for millennia - how did we get here?

In this documentary, Professor Jim Al-Khalili sets out to uncover one of the great mysteries of science - how does a universe that starts off as dust end up with intelligent life? How does order emerge from disorder?

It's a mindbending, counterintuitive and for many people a deeply troubling idea. But Professor Al-Khalili reveals the science behind much of beauty and structure in the natural world and discovers that far from it being magic or an act of God, it is in fact an intrinsic part of the laws of physics. Amazingly, it turns out that the mathematics of chaos can explain how and why the universe creates exquisite order and pattern.

And the best thing is that one doesn't need to be a scientist to understand it. The natural world is full of awe-inspiring examples of the way nature transforms simplicity into complexity. From trees to clouds to humans - after watching this film you'll never be able to look at the world in the same way again.

Useful References: Alan Turing (Wikipedia); Alan Turing (by his biographer); Benoit Mandelbrot (Wikipedia); Mandelbrot Applet.

January 12, 2010

Steps on a Profound, Perfect Journey

I advertise myself as “Past the half century mark. Still growing up and still getting it wrong.” Somebody very kindly left a comment on "Look Well To This Day For It Is Life" to tell me I’m not getting it wrong and that life is just a series of steps along the way. I’m very grateful that they took their precious time to read my entry and to write a response. Thank you, whoever you are.

While I realise they are right, I like the “… still getting it wrong” bit. It has a mischievous ring to it. So I decided, after some deliberation, to keep it.

I kinda like the idea of never getting to the point where I have life sewn up and getting it right. I’m here to learn and I want to continue to learn right up to the end. It’s half the fun of living. I know it’s not about getting it wrong either. It’s the ‘ah’s’ and ‘ooh’s’ and ‘aha’s’ of each step of the way that makes life exciting and helps me to grow.

So, Parker's Pen, whoever you may be, thank you for being another step along my way, part of my ramblings and wonderings and for making them matter. And thank you for sharing your story about your friend. I never found the poem you mentioned but I will continue to look.

Here’s to many more steps on my profound, perfect journey.

January 10, 2010

Reading & Meditation

I’ve just managed to hear the last part of Open Book on Radio 4. It seems I’ll have to wait a while for it to be available on iPlayer. Mariella Frostrup was talking to Edmund White and it was interesting to hear him say that part of him would have liked to have settled down and to have had children. Coming from a gay writer it’s nice to know I’m not alone in that sentiment.

Listening to the programme made me realise how little I’ve read lately and some of what the act of reading means to me. I’ve loved reading since I can remember. My mother always encouraged it and I could read very well by the time I started school. I would often take home the book that was being read in class and finish it at home that day, eager for the next book and impatient that I would have to go over it again and again. In hindsight, this allowed me to learn more and more about the language I use, and the subtleties of language used in any written work.

My English teacher in senior school encouraged me to look at what I was reading even more. Through him I learnt that Shakespeare and Chaucer weren’t just old writers who didn’t make any sense, they were accomplished authors who managed to convey a great deal in the language they used.

Reading is another way of looking at the world. The use of words that sometimes have little to do with the subject matter can vividly describe the subject matter itself. Poetry is a classic example of this. Reading and writing helps expand the mind, opening it out like a flower to encompass experiences and situations that I have no knowledge of and allowing me to grasp what they might feel like and look like.

Writing is the same. I must think about how I am going to describe a thing or a situation in a way that others will begin to grasp my meaning. This necessitates analysing something to find the deeper meaning in order to be able to describe it. This exercises the mind. As with physical exercise our brains need exercising too. This is what keeps us fit, healthy and strong.

So, reading and writing help us to learn about ourselves and the world around us. They promote conversation, bring people together, and stimulate our minds. They are the stuff that anarchy, religion, philosophy and science are born of – and give birth to.

Reading must also have a physical effect. I can laugh and cry at a story or written account and I can feel enormously happy or incredibly sad or angry. While I am reading something these emotions are very real in the experiencing, even though the situation is artificial. It is well known that emotions have a physical effect on the body and mind because of the production of hormones and chemicals.

I saw a programme on TV a while back that explored what reading can do to somebody’s brain. For a process that is not naturally learned, like speech and walking, it has an enormous effect. It exercises and increases memory, brings about empathy through glimpses into other people’s lives – however real or fictional, and it encourages a continuation of learning through trying to grasp the meaning of what is written.

Apart from reporting on the experiments carried out on the brain, the programme talked to people who were formally illiterate, or who may have not read much in their lives. Once they had found the right encouragement they began to read more avidly. All the things I have mentioned above were increased after time. One chap, a formal criminal, had even said that the more reading he did the more it made him think about the effect his former actions had on the people he carried out crimes against - something that had never entered his mind before. A clear example of empathy.