Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Real time

The idea that nature consists fundamentally of atoms with immutable properties moving through unchanging space, guided by timeless laws, underlies a metaphysical view in which time is absent or diminished. This view has been the basis for centuries of progress in science, but its usefulness for fundamental physics and cosmology has come to an end due to its inability to answer key questions such as what chose the laws of nature or why the universe is so asymmetric in time. Some people have confused the reliance on timeless laws with science itself, but this is wrong.

A new scientific world view is emerging based on the principles that time is real, laws evolve and irreversibility is fundamental. It is already clear this view has the capacity to explain – in ways that are testable by experiment – basic facts about our universe that otherwise appear to be inexplicable.
-- Lee Smolin

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

"a German once wrote a book about a lemon peel..."

...[Rousseau] has, as he writes in the "Fifth Walk", deliberately forsworn the burden of work, and his greatest joy has been to leave his books safely shut away and to have neither ink nor paper to hand. However, since the leisure time thus freed up must be put to some use, Rousseau devotes himself to the study of botany, whose basic principles he had acquired in Môtiers on excursions with Jean Antoine d'Ivernois. "I set out to compose," writes Rousseau in the "Fifth Walk", "a Flora Petrinsularis and to describe every single plant on the island in enough detail to keep me busy for the rest of my days. They say a German once wrote a book about a lemon peel; I could have written one about every grass in the meadows, every moss in the woods, every lichen covering the rocks – and I did not want to leave even one blade of grass or atom of vegetation without a full and detailed description. In accordance with this noble plan, every morning after breakfast I would set out with a magnifying glass in my hand and my Systema Naturae under my arm to study one particular section of the island, which I had divided for this purpose into small squares, intending to visit them all one after another in every season." The central motif of this passage is not so much the impartial insight into the indigenous plants of the island as that of ordering, classification and the creation of a perfect system. Thus this apparently innocent occupation – the deliberate resolve no longer to think and merely to look at nature – becomes, for the writer plagued by the chronic need to think and work, a demanding rationalistic project involving the compiling of lists, indices and catalogues, along with the precise description of, for example, the long stamens of self-heal, the springiness of those of nettle and of wall-pellitory, and the sudden bursting of the seed capsules of balsam and of beech...
from A Place in My Country by W.G.Sebald

Friday, April 19, 2013

Read, think, do

I recently selected Five Books on the theme Growing up in the Anthropocene. I was wondering what to read next and a few days later came across this interview with Jeremy Grantham. Prompted by Grantham, I read Immoderate Greatness by William Ophuls. It's a short, polemical read which, for all its conservative sensibility, is worth a look. Ophuls quotes Why Most Things Fail by Paul Ormerod:
Species, people, firms, governments are all complex entities that must survive in dynamic environments that evolve over time. Their ability to understand such environments is inherently limited...These limits are a fundamental feature of [all complex] systems [and] can no more be overcome by smarter analysis that we are able to break binding physical constrains, such as our inability to travel faster than the speed of light. That is why things fail. 
Ophuls's concludes"
the proper (or only) way to 'manage' civilization is by not allowing it to become to complex – in fact, deliberately designing in restraints, redundancy, and resiliency, even if the price is less power, freedom, efficiency or profit than we might otherwise gain through greater complexity...Wisdom consists in renouncing 'immoderate greatness.'

Some hope. Next up, when time allows, I'll read Dirt by David Montgomery. I may also look at The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway (presumably summarised as follows: “a second Dark Age [fell] on Western civilization, in which denial and self-deception, rooted in an ideological fixation on 'free' markets, disabled the world’s powerful nations in the face of tragedy.”)

But beyond that, what? If you are reading this and have any suggestions please let me know.

(Also, what shall I do with myself?!)

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Eden, Elysium, Arcadia, Utopia

In 1877, when the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli drew the first detailed map of Mars, he imagined the planet as an earthly paradise. He labelled one region Eden, another Elysium, others, on later maps, Arcadia and Utopia. Peering through his telescope on the roof of the Palazzo di Brera, in Milan, Schiaparelli had seen what looked like oceans, continents, and water channels swim into view. “The planet is not a desert of arid rocks,” he wrote. “It lives.” 
-- via Burkhard Bilger. Image NASA/JPL via this