Sunday, February 28, 2010


The undeniable existence of altruism always has been a thorn in the side of Darwinism. Natural selection, together with genetic shift, explains pretty much everything - except why a man might jump into an icy Potomac to save an airplane passenger he doesn't know, exert huge energy to help unknown victims of natural disasters, or reach into somebody's parked car to turn off its headlights.

Evolutionary biologists have come up with all sorts of mathematical reasons for altruism - from calculations of relatedness (you'd do more for a first cousin than you'd do for a second cousin), to theories about how the welfare of a particular grandchild depends upon whether the grandmother is a paternal or maternal granny.)

In the end, altruism remains a mystery. But I suspect the way to think about it has to start with a feeling common to us all - the ability we have to actually enjoy another's happiness - even at our own expense.

For example, this evening I watched a nightly newscast (ABC, on this particular day) and learned not only about efforts to respond to Chile's monster earthquake, but the joy of Canadians celebrating their country's hockey victory over the U.S. Sure, most Americans' only think about hockey if they happen to walk past a TV broadcast and glance at a hockey puck flying toward a goal, a puck about the size of the period at the end of this sentence. Sure, Americans like to win. Sure, we care about our team. But still ... to experience, however vicariously, those Canada folks' glee was a joy that was seriously real. Watching the news, seeing the wide grins of little Canadian boys and girls, my smile was nothing but sincere.

I think that kind of empathy is, in the end, from which altruism flows. It's not about genetic math. It's about what humans, and a few other higher animals, can't help. And it is what makes evolution importantly cool - even in the face of the other, far more grim, facts of life. Which this evening I don't care to think about.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Big bad wolves

One day, while I was driving back to Helena from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, some 20 years ago, I decided to stop for the night in the eastern Montana town of Miles City (a cattle town named after a famous Indian fighter). I grabbed a motel room, and walked to another nearby motel with a bar and a restaurant. I sat at the bar, had a drink, and let another patron strike up a conservation.

Turns out he also was a journalist - specializing in agriculture in the west - and the conversation turned to wolves. I made some comment about how we should find some common ground between ecologists' understanding that wolves are important to the eco-system, and ranchers' concern for their stock.

The bar turned silent. The temperature turned very cold. All eyes turned toward me. "But," I said, placatingly, gulping a lot, looking for pistol handles sticking out of big western belts, "maybe I need to learn more."

Douglas H. Chadwick, a stunningly good writer about wildlife and the west for decades, said in a current National Geographic article the obvious, but he said it very well: "(G)ray wolves are the planet's most widespread large land mammals after humans and their livestock and - in the Northern Hemisphere - have long been our most direct competitors for meat."

So how could there not be hatred for wolves among ranchers, especially since nearly every one of them grew up on their grandfathers' knee, learning about how wolves would go into a frenzy, killing livestock just because they could, crazy, murderous animals that must be annihilated before an honest rancher's livelihood had a chance.

As I sat at that bar, nervously sipping a scotch and water, I fully realized that much of that wolf frenzy circa 1900 was caused by humans who, by nearly wiping out deer, elk and other large wolf prey, were the ultimate cause of the frenzy. But that didn't change the carnage found in a rancher's field. And I didn't feel like arguing the point.

Years later, as an editorial page editor, I received letters from people afraid to venture into the wilderness where wolves might lurk. And more letters, of course, from sportsmen upset that their prey - big game - were being diminished. Others, conservationists, demanded to know how the natural system of prey and predator could be kept in balance without natural predators on hand.

Those interested in this stuff know that in recent years wolves have been released into the wild and wolf packs now dot the Rocky Mountain Northwest. Pro-wolf folks agree that reimbursement for livestock killed by those packs is necessary. Anti-wolf folks are not impressed, apparently making a distinction between predator kills and slaughterhouse/hunter kills. After all, those latter kills benefit people. Wolf kills do not. Or, ultimately, do they?

Chadwick's article is a thoughtful look at the situation. It's worth a read.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Getting it right

Reading a New Yorker article on New York Times columnist Paul Krugman today, I was reminded that it was around the year 1999 - after many years as a newspaper reporter, a few less spectacular years as a city editor, and maybe a half-dozen years as an editorial page editor - that I first got to know Krugman's work. (Helena's Independent Record was the only newspaper in Montana that bought the Times wire, so we were the only paper in the state to carry Krugman.)

Paul Krugman had been hired by the Times to write about business and economics - the subject for which he recently won the Nobel Prize - but during the presidential election of 2000, the columnist began to realize something rather important: Economically speaking, the Bush team was lying through its teeth. And Krugman's columns mirrored his conviction that this particular would-be emperor was wearing no clothes, and that somebody had to get angry about it.

Krugman was appalled that Bush was using the "war on terror" to hide his reckless spending, trying to undermine Social Security, pushing economically and environmentally ruinous energy policy, and pulling ever wider the gap between rich and poor with his tax cuts.

In my experience, no national columnist in recent years has been more often right, and less often wrong.

That's why it was so unsettling for many Obama-besotted Americans (like me, rather out of my goard after eight years of Bush) when, early in the 2008 primaries, Krugman found the nation's first realistic black presidential candidate way too conservative. (What, no universal health-care coverage?) (What, Democrats can come together with Republicans?) Krugman first liked John Edwards (of course long before it became known that Edward's youthful good looks hid something rather less pleasant), and then he got behind Hillary Clinton, who may have been further toward the center, but at least was tough as nails. After the primaries, Krugman supported Obama, of course. (The alternative was McCain-(giggle)-Palin.)

By early 2010, Krugman's early worries about Obama are starting to worry lots of other Democrats as well. Was Krugman right again?

Don't know. But the New Yorker article mentioned that Krugman and his wife left the stock market a decade ago and never came back.


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Deer worries

I think I must face the possible grim truth: All or most of the deer I've been enjoying for the past few years - enjoying despite their poop dotting the discs of my snow - may have been killed.

It has been two or three weeks since I've seen any deer in my back yard, and probably almost two weeks since I've even seen a new deer track. Or a poop.

The timing bodes ill for my deer. The City of Helena is several years into a program to cull the town's ever-growing deer population. Studies have indicated that the population of the town's roughly 600 deer could grow exponentially unless that growth is somehow limited. (Check out Thomas Robert Malthus - 1766-1834 - who noted that while a population grows by a geometrical ratio, the means of subsistence grows only by an arithmetical ratio. Trouble has to follow.)

It turns out that this time of winter is when police officers are called upon to trap their quota of urban deer, drive a bolt into their heads, and transport the corpses to butchers who voluntarily prepare the meat for delivery to the city's hungry.

I agree with the city's policy. Uncontrolled growth of urban deer could only lead to trouble for everybody involved, including the deer.

But as I look out of my kitchen window into my empty back yard each day, I miss more and more the 10-20 mule deer I've come to know.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Iffy evolution

I'm still thinking about Neandertals. And their brains, which at an average of 1450 cubic centimeters were significantly larger than those of modern humans today. (One has to wonder, given the record of this country's Congress, the extent to which the brains of modern politicians are even smaller still.) But, hey, many animals have bigger brains than us. Whales, for instance. They needed smarts to navigate the world's oceans, and to communicate across long stretches of water.

But somehow, one suspects, a whale has yet to wonder, as Shakespeare did, whether "whether to be (or not to be)" is a cool question to ask.

And whether a play about Hamlet is even slightly interesting.

Neandertals, venturing out of their caves, seeking to garner wooly-mammoth meat, probably didn't spend a lot time worrying about whether to-be-or-not was an interesting question. Surely they just wanted meat for the fire. A hunk of protein to bring back to the tent and the family.

As many of us sit around, wanting something similar to that happiness around a fire, but now in a whole different world, checking out the computer, wondering who might be texting, we forget that we owe our survival to those similar cave guys (homo sapiens, in our case) who turned into us. I don't know what made the difference between 2010 and the past, but it had to be important. What worries me is that it probably was just luck, not our smarts. That bodes a bit ill, or at least iffy, don't you think?.

Saturday, February 20, 2010


This afternoon I was watching pro golfers Paul Casey from England and Camilo Villegas from Columbia battling it out in semi-final match play for the opportunity to go against Ian Poulter of England for the championship and - no offense, guys - I started thinking about Neandertals.

(Some may wonder why I didn't spell it Neanderthals, after the German valley in which the first bones were found in 1856. It turns out that modern writers use the "t" rather than the "th" simply because the German language now pronounces it that way. Tal, rather than Thal. Don't worry about it.)

But the fact remains that us humans have spent the last 150 years or so smugly thinking that Neandertals lost out in the race to continue because, simply, they weren't smart enough. We thought of them as "cave men," apelike folks, no competition for our ancestors.

Yet new studies would differ. Neandertals, who lived generally from 100,000 to near-civilized human times, whose remains have been found not only in Europe but North Africa and the Middle East, and - only some 20- or 25-thousand years ago - have been found to have been living in cliff caves below Gibraltar - apparently were damn smart.

Recent studies have demonstrated that Neandertals made exquisite earrings and other jewelry out of various painted sea shells. Which implies that they didn't go extinct because they were dumb cave dwellers. Like our ancestors, they were capable of symbolic thought. They apparently had brains that could burst into imagination and creativity. They buried their dead, engaged in religious rites, and lasted for tens of thousands of years through an ice age. Who knows, they may even have been able, had it been invented, to play golf.

And they disappeared. The point, I thought as I watched a couple of the greatest golfers in the world, is that we could disappear, too.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

High-wire cats

I miss my deer. It's been nearly two weeks since any deer - bucks, does, or yearlings - hopped my fence and hung around, dropping deer sign, shuffling snow, putting little pencil-like, urine-colored punches into the drifts.

So I've had to watch the cats.

My neighbors have lots of cats, and they may be domesticated animals, but among themselves they are snotty little shits. They confront each other like teenage boys or middle-school girls ... although they almost always are smarter about backing away.

The other day I saw two of them balancing like high-wire artists atop my back fence - an eighth-inch board - facing off from a few feet away. Balancing there, for many minutes. Just staring at each other. Hissing once in a while. Refusing to back down. I watched in fascination - not sure whether to be impressed or alarmed - until, finally, the calico backed off. It turned around - no small task on the tiny top of a fence - and with a dignified step walked away. But he was walking toward my back gate, which has sharp, uneven points. The cat should have been in the Olympics. It stretched itself, oh so carefully, from one step to another, slow as a slug, but with grace. Then, after what had to be a cat-like pause of insolence devastating to its opponent, it hopped down to the alley.

The other cat sat there a while, balanced on the fence, looking chagrined.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Strange fruit

A kid growing up in the 1950s, in the northwestern part of the northern state of Wisconsin, heard a lot of cool music. But he seldom heard Billie Holiday. And he never heard "Strange Fruit."

Never mind that Holiday, a famous jazz singer, was near the top of her game (although on the way down, dying in 1959 in her mid-40s.). This is a black woman who grew up tough to an unmarried mom and a musician father who was never there. She apparently was a prostitute working at age 12 out of a Baltimore waterfront warehouse, and later sang for tips for a living.

She made it big, and is well known for many cool songs. But, in 1939, she sang her coolest song of all. It was called "Strange Fruit," written by a young high school teacher named Abel Meeropol, and it was about a taboo subject in the 1930s - lynching.

"Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood on the roots
Black bodies swinging in the Southern breezes
Strange fruit swinging in the Southern breeze."

A pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop."

This in 1939. She sang this song, with much trepidation, and then no doubt had to take the service elevator down from the stage of the Lincoln Hotel in New York so as not to offend the white customers with her black presence.

As I said, I had to wait a long time to hear her song. When I finally did, I was not pleased with the wait.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A disc of snow

We've all had those moments when what we want to say is "on the tip of our tongue." The desired word - a name, a phone number, or nearly anything else - stubbornly escapes us. The only thing to do is to put the problem out of our mind and trust that the answer will pop into our heads before too long. And it generally does just that.

But what about times when the answer to a question - or at lease a possible answer - takes years (hell, decades) - to pop?

Such was the case with this poem, which blew my poor brain when I came across it as a very young man. It is a rather simple poem (by Emily Dickinson) that seems rather too simple ... just a lead-in to the final punch line. But what a line!

The poem, dated from 1861, the start of Dickinson's early prolific period during the Civil War, is a reflection on death. It goes like this:

Safe in their Alabaster Chambers -
Untouched by Morning -
And untouched by noon -
Sleep the meek members of the Resurrection,
Rafter of Satin and Roof of Stone -

Grand go the Years,
In the Crescent above them -
Worlds scoop their Arcs -
And firmaments - row -
Diadems - drop -
And Doges - surrender -
Soundless as Dots,
On a Disc of Snow

"Soundless as dots on a disc of snow?!" Holy shit! The rest of the poem is easy: The dead are untouched by the passage of time, the swirl of planets and stars, and the death or downfall of the great and powerful. But this dot-on-a-disc-of-snow stuff poleaxed me. What was that about?

Years later, I was remembering my youth, as old farts do. I recalled winters sledding down our inclined driveway, making ice, much to the displeasure of my Dad ... the sound of my Dad, in the middle of a minus-20 night, trudging down to the basement to shovel coal into the furnace ... the fact that eating snow - what fun! - became problematic when the soot from our coal furnace and everybody else's coal furnace in the neighborhood began coating the snow with dots of black.

Light bulb! Back in Dickinson's time, as in my youth (at least in my neighborhood), there were no gas lines. Coal was burned in the winter, and it sent little dots of soot out through the chimney to fall upon the snow. Ever so silently. Each dot marking, to the observant, the center of a little disc.

Is this the explanation of that enigmatic ending to the poem? Of course I don't know, but I'd bet on it. I think Dickinson got this image into her head, and wrote the poem so that she could put it to use.

And also, of course, to give a guy like me a lot of fun figuring it out, however belatedly.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Big smile, gravel voice

In my memory as a boy, Louis Armstrong was this big-smiling, gravel-voiced musician on the radio - that big console that sat in our living room, more often doing Bing or Sinatra - and (once our family finally got a television!) turning up on TV variety shows all the time. He obviously was loved and respected by all. I really didn't know why. He was cool, but not as cool as Elvis.

Of course, young boys, by definition, lack a certain historical perspective. I recently learned, for instance, that it was Armstrong who first used the word "chops" to admire a musicians' ability. He was the first to call anybody a "cat." And he spent essentially two years on the run after refusing to bow to the demand from New York night club owner and big-time gangster Dutch Shultz to show up at Shultz's establishment. A command performance, so to speak. At the time, a time of illegal liquor and machine guns transported in violin cases, that took some guts.

Of course, (and I have to take others' word for this), Armstrong is most famous for changing American singing. The early 20th Century world of ragtime and the Charleston suddenly had to deal with scat and other innovations that I can hear, but don't have the smarts to describe.

Still, for that youngster that was me, there was something life-changing about just seeing Armstrong, Lena Horn, and other black performers on the tube. They were better, I think I understood in my limited, childlike way, than any of their white contemporaries. Louis Armstrong, back in the 1950s, may not have been in my eyes as cool as Elvis (who of course was doing "Negro" music, which pissed off parents more than his pelvic movements), but Louis Armstrong and his fellow artists of that time (Duke Ellington, etc.) were cool enough. Cool enough to help initiate the changes soon to come.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

A heated argument

I've just spent a rather masochistic hour reading stuff on the Internet that purports to be serious pieces on why we should withhold judgment on whether or not global warming is something we should quickly address with legislation that, admittedly, would have serious economic consequences. I'm no expert on economic consequences, and that pretty weather lady on the Weather Channel knows a lot more than I do about the science of studying climate change. But as a long-time journalist, I can spot empty blather from a mile away.

I'm not talking about the average Joes who can be counted on, every time a cold snap moves in, to smirkingly ask each other, "Where's the warming?" Instead, what about arguments that seem to have some substance?

For instance, some claim that warming over the past quarter century is just part of natural cycles, quite without understanding anything about such cycles. It is true, according to some theories, that a "snowball Earth" occurred perhaps two times a couple billion years ago, and it took millions of years for the planet's natural radiation of internal heat to break out of the monster ice age. (Think many, many years of volcanoes, etc, eventually ending the extreme cycles, with those persistent micro-organisms basically starting over.) (Thank you, micro-organisms.) Also, of course, there were the much more recent warming times that let many dinosaurs live at high latitudes some one or two hundred million years ago, even considering the movement of land masses. And don't forget all those still-more "recent" ices ages. But all those changes took place over geological time, certainly not over a single human generation. Today's climate models take account of recent small changes due to solar output, the El Nino sort of ocean circulation shifts, even the "heat island" effect of large cities. But current measures of warming blow away such influences. Over a tiny blink of geological time, during which energy use and carbon release has soared, the overall temperature change has overwhelmed any other possible causes.

Other arguments are just hand-waving, or worse. Do many scientists disagree? Nope. Peer-reviewed articles by dissenters are scarce, and not a one offers an alternative model to explain the data. Is more carbon dioxide good for plants? Sure, except that carbon dioxide's benefits would be far more than offset by killing temperatures and local droughts. What about those stolen emails from the British climate center? OK, some people wrote emails aimed at discouraging journals from printing anti-warming articles - who among us wouldn't regret some of our emails being made public? - but there's no evidence that anyone suppressed climate data. And even if someone did, that human failure would have no impact on the overwhelming data worldwide.

I'm not likely to be around to experience the most serious long-range impacts of warming. However, I care about our offspring and theirs, mostly a bunch of average Joes like me, who would suffer the consequences if remedial action isn't taken during a window of time in which such action still could do some good.

Whew. I think for a while, average Joe that I am, I'm just going to read stuff I agree with.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Eek - politics seeps into the blog

Reading a recent commentary on the recent U.S. Supreme Court 5-4 decision (five right wingers vs.. four moderates) overturning any law forbidding corporations or unions from buying unlimited TV ads backing or opposing a particular political candidate, I have to agree that such an "activist" ruling - one called "devastating" by the president - is a sorry legacy of the Reagan-Bush years. I'm old enough to remember when conservatives cared about their country, as opposed to their corporate handlers.

Much has been written about how the ruling will let foreign corporations "buy" U.S. elections, but the issue is rather bigger even than that. In overturning 100 years of precedents, for no apparent reason except the foam of radical spleen, the five horses of the tea party have given top corporate executives the self-serving ability to spend untold amounts (of their shareholders' money) to further befuddle an already befuddled political process.

The court's simplistic understanding of the First Amendment undermines the basic purpose of free speech - the protection of democracy via facts and legitimate debate versus self-serving corporate big-lie propaganda. Corporations, by their very nature, are not "real people" under the First Amendment. Corporate officers lead highly organized, well-funded special-interest legal fictions that have no possible justification under the First Amendment to blow our rights away with a tsunami of money rightfully belonging to pensioners and mutual-fund holders like you and me.

Reagan and the Bush folks spent much hot air over the past few decades bemoaning an activist judiciary. Welcome to their legacy.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Cranking it up

About two years ago, when I still was an editorial page editor, I received a letter from a fellow who had figured out why releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere not only doesn't cause global warming, but in fact cools the planet. He explained that carbon dioxide happens to be what dry ice is made of - and dry ice is COLD!

I later mentioned the claim, not using the guy's name, in an editorial suggesting the value of clear thinking about matters of importance. He quickly mailed me another letter offering to participate in a public debate in which I easily would be demolished. Displaying an appalling lack of professional courtesy, I failed to reply.

A couple of years earlier than that, I was on the phone with a woman trying to talk me into printing an op-ed offering proof that the world was only 10,000 years old (or 6,000, or whatever the number was.) She rattled off the familiar "evidence," but threw in one - "dust on the moon" - that was new to me. "Wait a minute," I said, "dust on the moon?"

The woman, who later visited the office and turned out to be a striking, well-dressed lady in her 30s, explained that prior to the first moon landing, scientists had worried that the moon lander might sink so far into the dust that had collected on the surface over four-plus billion years that the spacecraft wouldn't be able to take off again. But that didn't happen! Ergo ...

I have plenty of empathy for these people. Cranks always have totally convinced themselves of their ideas, and it isn't hard to understand the lengths most of us are willing to go to defend our most strongly held beliefs. And I get the frustration. My design for a lawn mower powered by the life energy of grass never sold, either. None are so blind ...

Thursday, February 11, 2010

And the play goes on

I've started watching one of those Teaching Company DVD lecture series, this one consisting of 60 half-hour discussions on "The Great Ideas of Philosophy." Some of this stuff I'll know, but I expect that a lot of it I won't.

This morning the instructor, Daniel N. Robinson of Oxford University, detoured a bit to talk about the "sort-of" philosophy of the Greek tragedians - specifically Euripides' "Medea," and Sophocles' "Antigone." Medea, whose magic saved the life of her husband Jason (of golden fleece fame) but in return was dumped by the dude, became overcome by passion and killed Jason's sons to even the score. Antigone, on the other hand, buried her slain brother despite the king's order not to do so.

Medea represents a pre-civilization imperative to find a suitably serious revenge; Antigone represents a pre-civilization drive to do the right thing, whatever "modern" society says and whatever the consequences. Each is wrong in some sense, and yet each is compelled by the human nature within them. This human nature, it is suggested, is what philosophy is about.

Greek tragedies seem like ancient history - until you consider Dubya and that Alaskan pretender to the throne. Greek tragedy is old news; American tragedy remains on the stage. The curtain has yet to fall. And the wisdom of the chorus is too often overwhelmed by the cheers from the audience.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

By the numbers

Pythagoras, the first dude to call himself a philosopher, is best known to kids as the guy who came up with that theorem about the squares of the sides of a right triangle adding up to square of the hypotenuse. (He also was the first to get the mathematics behind musical harmony.) In fact, he didn't just dig numbers, but pretty much worshiped them as the basis of everything. (He especially thought the numbers one, two, three and four were special, adding up to 10 and how cool is that? To him, very.)

But what I had not known is that according to some accounts, after traveling to Egypt and learning a bunch of applied mathematics, he ended up as a teacher in India, where he became a revered leader of a sect-like thing that continued, big time, after he returned to Mediterranean. While in India, he was much influenced by Jainism, an ascetic offshoot of Hinduism that was particularly put off by that religion's rituals, particularly its sacrificial cults. (Jainism later suffered its own schism over such matters as whether believers need to be nude all the time. But Jainism had, and has, its cool aspects. For instance, believers were known to carry brooms as they walked in order to safely sweep away insects so they weren't stepped on. Modern-day Jains, some 2 million in number, support charities that pay for asylums for diseased and decrepit animals. One can think of worse religions.)

Anyway, Pythagoras' fixation on numbers was rather prescient. After all, Einstein's most important equation (not counting that good old e=mc2), is the one that describes the curvature of space on the left side of the equal sign and the mass and energy content on the right side. I don't know to reproduce it here, but it is, after all, a bunch of numbers. How cool is that?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Early thought

Some say philosophy began with the myths that have come down to us - myths from the Upanishads or from Homer that dealt with the same philosophical concerns that linger today: How and what do we - can we - know? How should we conduct our lives? How should we arrange our way of living together?

But of course philosophy goes a lot farther back than that. I picture a stone-age hunter-gatherer clan sitting around a fire in their leisure time, which was a big part of their day, and glancing up at the brilliant stars. (Very little light pollution back then.) Some first philosopher, perhaps a young guy who was a little geeky with the atlatl but was an introspective sort, closed his eyes to the unreachable splendor above, deep in thought.

"Is this all there is?" he pondered, unknowingly doing a Peggy Lee. "What does it all mean?

"And, what's with that dark energy?"

Monday, February 8, 2010

Verbal coolness

Today I finished a rather thick and kind-of-deep-but-with-few-equations book called "From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time." Cool speculation at the end!

In the epilogue, in an endnote, the author, theoretical physicist Sean Carroll, said the title came to him easily because it worked on all kinds of levels ... including Deborah Kerr on the beach!

But he also mentioned that when his book was still in manuscript, nearly completed, another book was published with the same main title: "From Eternity to Here." Of course, the subtitle was a bit different: "Rediscovering the Ageless Purpose of God."

"I do hope," said Carroll in the endnote, "nobody orders the wrong book by accident."

Sometimes, you just have to sit back in awe, admiring a person's verbal coolness.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Fuzz and football

The notion of locality - the idea that cause and effect only works when the cause somehow "bumps into" something, causing the effect - is tricky. (Say you didn't watch the Super Bowl, and so you have no idea that the Saints won. But you come across a friend - a big Saints fan - and by seeing his big grin you know instantly which team won the game. Is that weird in any way? Nope - it took news of the outcome and the sight of his smile well longer to get to you than the time the information would have traveled at the speed of light. After all, it had to go from the game to him via TV to you via the smile. No "paradox."

But take a thought experiment (much cheaper than particle accelerators and such), and imagine (as did Einstein and a couple of his collaborators in the late 1930s) that you had two "entangled" subatomic particles, one of which spins in a certain way, and the other of which necessarily spins in the opposite way. (That's how these "entangled duos work.) In the thought experiment, you send one particle off into space really far - light years! - and then you check the other nearby one. Gosh, by checking the spin of the nearby one you automatically know the spin of the other one - information apparently delivered to you instantaneously, much faster that the speed of light! Old frizzy-hair Einstein figured that such a result was nuts, thus demolishing quantum mechanics.

Trouble is, the thought experiment didn't do the job. Most physicists bought what Albert called "spooky action at the distance." They showed that their experiments and their math agreed, to astonishing precision, and moved on.

Leaving the rest of us pissed. We can't do the math, the results still don't let anybody send information faster than light, and the whole thing is a pain. Especially when the whole idea undermines our intuition regarding the (sort-of) common-sense idea of space-time itself, making it fuzz up. Drat.

Luckily, we don't have to really worry about it. After all, the Saints won ... and given Katrina, that's a really good thing. Nothing fuzzy about that.

(My Packers, however, obviously need help.)

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Long odds

I'm still reading "From Eternity to Here: the Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time," and pondering big numbers - like the possible states of the universe in terms of entropy. When the Big Bang occurred, entropy had to be super low, or we'd all probably be a mindless part of a cooling soup of atomic particles by now.

So what are the odds that such a low-entropy beginning would happen? One measure answers: damn few among 10 (to the superscript 10) (to the supersuperscript 120). That is a number that makes a googol amount to a rather small hill of beans. Your odds of dying of a lightning strike while simultaneously being eaten by a lion and great white shark are far, far, better.

Some would say that such odds prove whatever religion they happen to believe in. But, hey, the odds of any of them being right - based on the superstitions of bronze-age tribes - is a lot less than that lion-shark-lightning demise. It turns out that our universe is a whole lot more unlikely than we can, at least today, even hope to imagine. It had, somehow, to have been physically chosen. But what does that mean? Our scientific thoughts on the matter may be tantalizingly close ... or not close at all.

But, hi! Here we are!

For a while, anyway.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Three guys walk into a bar

I was reading a popular-science physics book - the chapter on quantum mechanics - when this joke started to seep into my head, growing like an algae bloom across an otherwise placid pond.

"Three guys - call them Dave, Don, and Don's Dad - walk into a bar and start playing pool. Dad shoots a powerful shot toward a corner pocket. The object ball bounces off the two points of the pocket and rockets across the table, sinking into the opposite corner pocket.

Dad smiles knowingly, explaining that he wouldn't have had to shoot that kind of difficult shot except for quantum mechanics. You see, he told the others, had the superposition of the wave function of the balls on the table not been collapsed by being observed by Dave and Don, Dad would simply have been able to place the balls where he wanted them, unobserved.

After all, as Einstein said, God does not play pool with the universe.

A nearby fundamentalist religious dude overheard the conversation and aggressively asked Dad whether he was mocking God. "Oh, no," Dad said, he was only making fun of physics types like Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger, and the under-appreciated sage Wilhelm Clerk Skidmorsky. The dude says, "Skidmorsky?" "Oh yes," said Dad. "You mean you haven't heard of "Skidmorsky's mouse?"

Dad explained that the thought experiment involved a mouse placed in a box in which an apparatus had a 50-50 chance of killing it - unless the mouse gnawed through the apparatus first. Is the mouse alive or dead? The answer is: Both! At least until someone looks inside. (Unless, of course, the mouse has free gnaw.)

While Dave and Don were laughing uncontrollably, Dad quietly moved the balls into his preferred eigenstate."


Blame the joke on Sean Carroll, the author of "From Eternity to Here," the book I'm still reading. In that chapter on quantum mechanics, despite his heroic (and successful) striving to explain it all non-mathematically, he pauses to assure readers that: "No animals will be harmed in our thought experiments."


Wednesday, February 3, 2010

A cool journalist

Among my journalistic heroes are not only investigative reporters like Woodward-Bernstein, but also a handful of columnists able to combine uncommon writing skills with uncommon good sense. (You'll search today's editorial pages - don't bother looking on the tube - long and hard to find that kind of combo in operation these days.

One of the best of those columnists was Anna Quindlen, a long-time New York Times writer who gave up her post in mid life to write rather good novels. But in recent years, spurred on I suppose by her inner pundit, she's returned to occasional column writing. An excellent case in point is her lead item in this week's Newsweek.

Paraphrasing Quindlen is almost like paraphrasing the Gettysburg Address or the preamble to the Declaration of Independence. You don't do it at your peril, but at your certain failure.

Still, despite how impressed I was with the opinion piece, I'm not about to type in a column you can find on the newsstand or the Internet. Instead, some bullets:

- Most everybody is bummed about health-care reform - either those who didn't want it at all because of ingrained ideological blather, or those who, like me, demanded a hell of a lot more. As Quindlen noted, a poll of voters who abandoned the Democrats in Massachusetts showed that 41 percent of them who opposed the current health-care plan weren't sure why they were against it. Quindlen: "If elected officials are supposed to act based on the wisdom of ordinary people, they're going to need ordinary people to be better than that."

- Her suggestion is that Democrats "are in the majority, and they should act like it - boldly, decisively. Let the Republicans filibuster, and be confident that the sight would irritate, then enrage, most of the American people." We forget, she said, that "most the things that make America great - civil rights, the safety net, social security - were pushed through despite their unpopularity."

- Quindlen recalled a "smart" politician who said that "Telling the American people what we think they want to hear instead of telling the American people what they need to hear just won't do." That was Obama, of course, and it is a good part of why he was elected. Do we ever need him to be true to that campaign position.