Archive for September, 2007

Attempting to analyze Happiness

Posted on September 12, 2007. Filed under: Musings, Philosophy, Science, Spirituality |

I just this minute returned from viewing the film Living Luminaries. It follows the quest of a young man wanting to discover if there are specific methods to create an ongoing acceptance of happiness. For me, the film was surreally beautiful. Similar to such recent films as The Secret, and What the bleep do we Know, as interviews with “experts” in spiritual and scientific fields were featured, it was also different in that we traveled from place to place with Sean, the protagonist. There was unsparing footage of both lovely and unsavory living conditions. There was a greater variety of “experts” than in the previously mentioned two films–some “famous” and some not. It left me in a moody and contemplative state…the movie moved me.

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So, what is Science, again?

Posted on September 10, 2007. Filed under: Musings, Science |

I attended a lecture last weekend about applying the scientific method to some unusual phenomena.  At one point, the speaker stated: “Science isn’t trying to prove anything–its purpose is to ask questions.”  My little ears perked up, as that is something I wanted to believe.  I usually try to believe things I want to believe, but generally not without a little investigation first.  It had been my perception that many scientists either wanted to prove something, or declared that something had been proven by it.  So my quest first took me to the definition of proof, which turns out to be a legal or mathematical term, and has little to do with science, per se.

So, what is science?  My personal definition had long been: “recorded observations and experimental data”.

I knew that the English word had sprung from ancient terms in several languages which could be translated to “knowledge”.  Uh oh.  My newly cherished young belief was in trouble!  If science=knowledge, I felt, people would not likely assume scientific “knowledge” without proof, would they?  I was back to square one.

“What is knowledge?”, I then asked.  Answer:  “Facts, information, and skills acquired by a person through experience or education”, my dictionary patiently replied.

I was comfortable with the “information” and “skills” part of this answer, but, now–“What are facts?”  Beginning to wonder how far down this path I wanted to go, I discovered I’m remarkably persistent:  The simplest definition of “fact” is “that which is so”.  But, when the word is applied to scientific inquiry several considerations arise: 

  • whether and to what extent “fact” and “theoretic explanation” can be considered truly independent and separable from one another;
  • to what extent are “facts” influenced by the mere act of observation; and
  • to what extent are factual conclusions influenced by history and consensus rather than a strictly systematic methodology.
  • So, “knowledge” is not a set-in-concrete concept, either.  Meanwhile, back at the science ranch, I inquired about the purpose of scientific inquiry:

    “The underlying goal or purpose of science to society and individuals is to produce useful models of reality.

    “Science does not and can not produce absolute and unquestionable truth.

    “…it is not the goal of science to answer all questions. The goal of the sciences is to answer only those that pertain to perceived reality.”

    I was almost home free.  There was one last word to consider:  “Perception is the process of acquiring, interpreting, selecting, and organizing sensory information.”

    Whew.  I think I’m OK.  The sensory information–and what THAT means–is a discussion for another time.  In the meantime, I have enough ‘facts’, ‘knowledge’, and ‘perception’ to realize I can go ahead and embrace the notion that science isn’t out to prove anything.  I’m just happy to keep asking the questions.  What a relief!

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    Can we hear Music in Space?

    Posted on September 9, 2007. Filed under: Music, Science, Spirituality |

    On the topic of Sound, Vibration, and where these things occur, I received a thoughtful and thought-provoking comment from reader mrgnome on my post Singing DNA and the B-flat in Space.  By the time I’d answered his comment with one of my own, I had enough material for a whole new post, so I hope my friend does not mind being the cause of even more opining from me!

    Here is his comment, and my response:

    “Hmm, sound implies that there is air (or a gas), without air there can be no sound. To that extent vibration is not sound, but sound is an effect of vibration in air, perceived by our auditory system. The sound experience is just created by our brain if we really think about it. It’s just our perception of changes in air pressure. If we try to play tuba in space nothing is heard.

    True, waves from any vibration can be transformed into air-waves (within some limits), and hence give us the perception of sound. But the matter->vibration->sound=”we are sound” isn’t really true in that direct sense.

    Do you see where I’m coming from here?

    mrgnome, I do get what you’re saying.  You are, as always, wise and discriminating, and you make me think.  In order to do justice to your comment, I looked up the definition of “sound”, and referred back to the article I had linked to in the original post. From a purely mechanical science point of view, you are indeed correct, and many would be content to leave it at that, but not me!  While researching, I looked at the wikipedia article on Sound.  While wiki isn’t the definitive source for all information in the cosmos, I often find it a useful place to start.  Here’s what they say:

    Sound is a disturbance of mechanical energy that propagates through matter as a wave.”

    So far, so good. They further explain, though: “…scientists and engineers use a wider definition of sound that includes low and high frequency vibrations in the air that cannot be heard by humans, and vibrations that travel through all forms of matter, gases, liquids, solids and plasmas.”

    It’s that last word, “plasmas”, that caused me to look further.  In a table listing kinds of plasmas, the following are listed under Space and Astrophysical Plasmas:

    The Sun and other stars; The solar wind; The interplanetary medium (the space between the planets); The Intergalactic medium (the space between galaxies); The lo-Jupiter flux-tube; Accretion discs; Interstellar nebulae.

    OK, with all that going on in space, it doesn’t seem to be the total “vacuum” many of us were taught to believe.  Certainly if you played your tuba in space, I wouldn’t be able to hear it (too bad!), but, apparently, the sound could be recorded with an incredibly sensitive microphone, and then manipulated with audio equipment into something we could hear.  Granted, the result would only be an approximation of what your tuba actually “sounded” like, out there.  The article I referred to from says:

    “Space, though not as efficient [as air], can also serve as a medium.  If a brave and clever astronaut could safely remove her helmet and shout into the cosmos, her voice would carry.  We wouldn’t be able to hear the sound because our ears aren’t sensitive enough…”

    —Yes, but that doesn’t mean the sound is not there!  The question of how it is interpreted gets reverted back to a philosophical issue, in my opinion. The old koan, “If a tree falls in a forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” comes to mind.  The notion that “we are sound”–well, I grant you I’m taking some poetic license there.  I extrapolated from theoretical physics that matter is not dense, (whether or not I myself am ‘dense’ is another question), but made up of vibrating particles, and that the structure underlying all matter is mostly empty space.  (There’s that word ‘space’, again).  I could as easily have said, “we are music”–which many musicians, including me, intuitively feel.  But again, that falls to philosophers or poets to decide.  I’m just not sure, as I’ve expressed elsewhere on this site, that there is as much distinction between science, and philosophy, and the arts, as we’re led to believe.

    I find myself asking how much or little accumulated matter we need to transmit vibration. Where does vibration originate if not from matter, and where does it go?  If those are at all valid questions, could it be from/to consciousness itself?  I feel yet another post coming on.

    Thanks much, mrgnome, for encouraging this inquiry. I look forward to more.

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    Alice is a Philosopher

    Posted on September 8, 2007. Filed under: Games, Science, Spirituality |

    Most of us have read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  In the movie What the Bleep Do We Know, a character asks “How far down the rabbit hole do you want to go?”  He refers of course, to the entryway to Alice’s quirky, surreal, and silly adventures.  The Bleep movie offers us a “reality” that only SEEMS surreal and strange.  With analysis from quantum physics and spiritual experience, the rabbit-hole reality could be just as “real” as anything we usually consider thus.  That’s another discussion, though.  I’ll just comment here on the Alice story that inspired the question.

    I don’t know about you, but I never questioned the name “March Hare” during any of my readings of Alice’s story.  Why would a “March” Hare be any different than a “September” Hare?  Well, it turns out they are very different indeed.  I learned that the expression “Mad as a March Hare” was in vogue in England in the mid 1800s when the book was written.  In March, it was believed, hares began to weary of their long breeding season, and their “mad” behavior was observed when a female would use her back legs to repel an overenthusiastic male suitor.

    Alice approaches a tea party after being warned that its participants are mad. 

    “But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.

    “…we’re all mad here.  I’m mad.  You’re mad.”

    “How do you know I’m mad?  Said Alice.

    “You must be, …or you wouldn’t have come here.”

    The liberal use of the word “mad” in the story is, well, maddening.  If I substitute the word “unusual”, though, it could describe my circle of friends:  “You must be unusual, or you wouldn’t have come here.”

    Alice, in choosing whether to visit the Hatter or the March Hare, decides “The March Hare will be much the most interesting, and perhaps as this is May, it won’t be raving mad — at least not so mad as it was in March.”

    Alas, poor Alice finds BOTH the Hatter and the March Hare at the Hare’s tea party.

    I’d thought the Hatter was always called the “Mad Hatter”.  He was certainly mad, because he was “there”, at the party, but I was astonished to realize that NOT ONE TIME was he ever referred to as “The Mad Hatter” in the story, just “The Hatter”.  I’ve seen characters in plays called “The Mad Hatter”, and Halloween costumes in stores called “The Mad Hatter”, but it turns out that this is one of those cultural myths!  You know the sort of thing:  Humphrey Bogart never uttered the words “Play it again Sam,” in Casa Blanca; Captain Kirk never ordered “Beam me up, Scotty” on Star Trek; and music “hath charms to soothe the savage BREAST,” not BEAST.

    It’s at the tea party that my favorite (and most “Bleep/Rabbit Hole”-like) sequence happens:  “…you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.

    “I do,” Alice hastily replied: “at least — at least I mean what I say — that’s the same thing, you know.”

    “Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter.  “Why, you might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see”!

    “You might just as well say,” added the March Hare, “that ‘I like what I get’ is the same thing as ‘I get what I like”!

    There are times that the comment about eating IS the same for me, but it’s the philosophical principal in the next comment I wish to emphasize, because it brings two things into alignment:  “I like what I get” is indeed the same as “I get what I like” if we choose to look at life in that way.  If we are able to look upon the life we have as mostly good, we are then more likely to “get” more of what we find to be good.

    Alice has other teachings for us.  At one point she “tried to fancy what the flame of a candle looks like after the candle is blown out”…sounds like a Zen koan to me!  I meditated on ‘candle-with-flame-blown-out’ for a while.  I’d love it if you’d try it and tell me what it’s like for you.

    At one point, Alice learns about Time.  “If you knew Time as well as I do,” said the Hatter, “you wouldn’t talk about wasting IT.  It’s HIM…Now, if you only kept on good terms with Him, he’d do almost anything you liked with the clock.”  Who knew there would be quantum droppings in this tale?  An earlier post of mine tells how scientists might want to keep on good terms with Time.

    Finally, I’ll mention a comment in the introduction to my edition of Alice in Wonderland.  The publisher states that Alice is the first book created solely for the amusement of children, with “no moral purpose whatsoever.”  This may have been the intention of author Lewis Carroll, an Oxford lecturer in logic and mathematics, but, if so, he failed.

    In Carroll’s time, children’s literature was full of pious lessons in correct behavior, and the horrible consequences of naughty actions by bad boys and girls.  I’m entirely sympathetic with Carroll wanting to get away from this, and, as a child I was highly amused by Alice’s adventures.

    But even then, I knew there was more to the story than simple amusement.  It gave me permission to indulge in the power of imagination, and opened a whole new world to me.  I didn’t know then that this world could have been a parallel reality in the realm of theoretical physics.  See you down the Rabbit Hole!


    [A slightly altered version of this article was first published in A Positive View, February 2006]…..If you’d like to play some Alice games, check out this site (uses JavaScript).  The full text of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is available here.

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    A Blog is like a Schnauzer

    Posted on September 6, 2007. Filed under: Games, Musings |

    I felt like having a break from the serious articles…but this may be more “serious” than I think. I’ve had this blog up and running for less than two months, and already I’ve noticed it requires more care than a pet! Many have probably posted on this. I wish I’d read them. The amount of preparation and maintenance and attention I’ve put into this project has its rewards…but who’s going to blog-sit when I go on vacation?

    Here are some comparisons of having a dog, with having a blog:

    Dog: Must be “let out” in the morning and evening to relieve self of waste products.
    Blog: Owner must sort, moderate, identify and release SPAM.

    Dog: Is HUNGRY
    Blog: Needs new POST
    (In both cases, can be left alone for a day or two–but quality [of life? of freshness?] will decline after that).

    Dog: Wants to PLAY
    Blog: Wants to ENGAGE

    Dog: Must take for a walk, exercise, see the world.
    Blog: Must visit other blogs, sometimes sniff and be friendly (leave comments), otherwise why blog?

    Dog: Requires BRUSHING several times a week.
    Blog: Requires MAINTENANCE, i.e. fixing broken links, editing posts with new information, spiffing up the appearance.

    Dog: May get testy and whiny if ignored for very long.
    Blog: Doesn’t say anything. Doesn’t do anything. But silently reproaches owner with dormant pixels when computer is off.

    Dog: Gives LOVE. Sometimes. When feels like it.
    Blog: Gives COMMENTS. Sometimes. When feels like them.

    Dog: While minding one’s own business, going about one’s day, concentrating on other things, will sometimes wonder, “Is the dog alright?”
    Blog: All as above, but substitute “blog” for “dog”.

    Well, you get the idea. Does anyone know where I can sign up for Blog Obedience Training?

    Lately, I’ve noticed that when I meet a friend, and ask how their children are, they ask me how my blog is. I knew I was going to enjoy writing and editing and tending to my blog. I just didn’t realize it would become part of my family.

    [NOTE: No blogs were harmed during the creation of this post.

    [Disclaimer: my use of the breed name “schnauzer” does not imply endorsement of, or preference for, this particular breed of dog (although those schnauzers I’ve met are mostly very nice). I just liked the sound of the word “schnauzer” in my post.

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    Singing DNA and the B-flat in space

    Posted on September 3, 2007. Filed under: Music, Science |

    If all matter is really vibration, and vibration is sound, then we are sound.  I received some additional information regarding two articles I posted recently:  Are we music?  and  Crickets Sing…As if.

    I like it when I post something, and then people I know who don’t want to write about it send me stuff.  I get to take credit for posting the information, but others have done the work.  Thanks!

    We may indeed be music.  A researcher and musician has derived a way to listen to the sound of our DNA.  Or at least what DNA would sound like if we could hear it.  This is speculative, because it attempts to translate one sort of information (light waves) to another (audible sound), but I find it a fascinating inquiry.

    At the end of my “Crickets” post, I included a link to an article reporting the sound made by a black hole in space.  This sound was actually measurable.  Well, here is an article explaining how that sound was measured, and how sound travels through space.  If you are like me, you thought sound did not travel in the vacuum of space, right?

    I like to update and add to the discussion.  Let me know what you think, too!

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    Beethoven’s Bones, and Teeth, and…Hair

    Posted on September 1, 2007. Filed under: Music, Science, Spirituality |

    Was Ludwig von Beethoven killed? This story has all the makings of another classical composer’s controversial death: the reported demise of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart at the hand of his rival, Antonio Salieri. Enter a novel, a play, a movie perhaps? (You did see Amadeus, did you not?)

    I often notice coincidence and serendipity in my life. As I was reading the book Beethoven’s Hair, something I’d been meaning to do for years, the Associated Press released a story describing a new theory of how Beethoven died. Beethoven’s Hair describes the remarkable journey of a lock of hair, cut from his head by a friend and fellow composer at Beethoven’s deathbed in Vienna. The hair travels through Europe, to San Jose, California, where most of it resides today. It had been some years since hair and bone fragments had been analyzed, and revealed that Beethoven’s body contained large amounts of lead residue. The book describes the DNA analyses and tests run on the fragments, but just recently, as of August 28 of this year, there is new CSI-like research indicating the great composer may have been deliberately, steadily, poisoned.

    One of the things I most enjoyed about Beethoven’s Hair was the interweaving of the story of the composer’s life, including the great friendships he enjoyed with prominent European composers of classical music’s golden age, with the mystery and suspense surrounding the journey of “the hair” and the cultural conditions marking its movement.

    Beethoven is of course best known for his symphonies–particularly the fifth (“da da da dum….”) and the ninth (“Ode to Joy”). I love those, too, but I’m utterly transfixed by his late string quartets. If you’re wired the way I am, you need only listen to a quartet for 15 minutes or so to have a transcendent spiritual experience.

    In the lovely book Beethoven: His Spiritual Development, by J.W.N. Sullivan, the author proclaims: “The states of consciousness with which he was concerned contained more and more elusive elements, and came from greater depth. The task of creation necessitated an unequalled degree of absorption and withdrawal.” Sullivan concludes, rather sadly, with these words: “…Beethoven was a man who experienced all that we can experience, who suffered all that we can suffer. If, in the end, he reaches a state ‘above the battle’ we also know that no man ever knew more bitterly what the battle is.”

    The romantic poignancy portrayed in many biographies and the movie Immortal Beloved has always played a part in my appreciation for the composer’s works. His ill health, and ironic deafness have added pathos and intrigue to his story. To think that, of all people to go deaf, it would be Beethoven, for whom music was everything–the portal to spiritual connection! And yet, he continued to compose his amazing late works in spite of the fact he could not “hear” them–at least with his physical ears. We can believe he did hear them though, with his whole being.

    Over the years Beethoven’s intense health issues were mostly considered a tragic twist of fate. Then, after several exhumations, autopsies, examinations, and analyses, it was revealed he had serious liver disease, and finally, lead poisoning. This is thought to have led not only to his great physical suffering, but could also have contributed to his deafness. Now, in the recent article, we learn he may have been deliberately, although not intentionally, poisoned!

    “Beethoven suffered from cirrhosis of the liver as well as edemas of the abdomen. Reiter says that in attempts to ease the composer’s suffering, [his Doctor] Wawruch repeatedly punctured the abdominal cavity – and then sealed the wound with a lead-laced poultice…. how was he to know that Beethoven already had a serious liver ailment?”

    The article goes on to say that every time Beethoven had a treatment from Dr. Wawruch, his lead levels spiked. Science, music, drama and mysticism have now mixed themselves into the tale of this remarkable man. He still speaks to us through these new studies, and always through the Music. His death was as dramatic as his life, and his music reflects all that he was. I’m left with transcendent joy and profound gratitude that this soul came to share his journey with us.

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