Monday, 19 November 2012

How Science Has Outdone, Undone, and Redone Itself

The pursuit of scientific knowledge has been perhaps the most successful venture in the history of human civilization.  The very fact that you are reading these words the way you are reading them is a testament to the success of this pursuit.  Many of the things you value about your lifestyle, your music, your makeup, your magic, your whipped-merry-goo, are a testament to this pursuit.  We call this pursuit science, and it is truly extraordinary. 

Now, I would like to propose to you the following: two-hundred years ago, science outdid itself; one-hundred years ago, it undid itself; and right now, it is in a hurried business of redoing itself.

To explore this proposition, let us take up our strategic but perhaps stochastic starting position around the beginning of the 17th century.  At about this time, a man named Francis Bacon had begun to assert among his fellows the mostly abhorred but somewhat celebrated position that the only knowledge one could truly trust was knowledge obtained from experience.  Not from a book, but from experience.  That is, knowledge about the universe should be strictly experimental.  Strictly a manner of evidence.  Strictly empirical.

Needless to say, this approach caught on big time.  Gallileo had been using it to reach new conclusions about the position of our planet in the solar system.  Newton used it to deduce that apples fall by the same force that holds the moon around the Earth.  James Watt used it to ignite the industrial revolution.  Maxwell and Gauss used it to make mathematics the most powerful tool in the Human tool kit.  And Nikola Tesla used it to show that we could do just about anything.

Around this time, having observed and contributed greatly to the truly supreme and unparalleled successes of science, Pierre Simon Laplace proposed what is now known as Laplace's Determinism:  given complete information about the configuration of the universe at a particular instant, scientific methods permit one to compute the configuration of the universe at any future instant.  That is, the universe is deterministic, and science allows you to determine it.

These developments had enormous implications for human society and for ecological systems.  The pace of evolution on the planet was considerably accelerated.  Human populations exploded.  Quality of life exploded with it.  Science, a once humble pursuit to study and understand the marvelous magic of Nature and her habits, had just about outdone itself.  In response, she proceeded to undo herself.

You see, things had been going so well for scientists, so rapidly, that they suddenly found themselves face to face with the smallest particles they could fathom, in the form of the atom.  And what did they do with them?  They blew them apart.  Into the most cosmic sort of smitherenes they could imagine.  And by the time the dust started to settle and anyone could really get a handle on what was going on, it was 2012, we were all still very confused about the atom, and there was a lot of commotion about a thing called a Higgs.

Of course, in the intervening years, quite a good deal of havoc was let loose.  Physicsists confronted the hard, cold truth that uncertainty was actually built into the fabric of the universe.  Mathematicians failed to produce a framework that could actually stand within and of itself, in completeness.  A little later, biologists stumbled about in the murky waters of genetic bits and biochemical blobs, producing a fascinating wealth of information, having little but a clue of what to do with it.  Everyone wanted there to be a bit for everything: an atom, a gene, a cell, an individual.  Little bit balls that could be rolled around from particular position to particular position.  Deterministic delirium.  Most of the time, most of the people overlooked the waves.

By the time the late 20s rolled around, the leading physicists of the time had come to the conclusion that, actually, we were not dealing with particles, but with waves, which present themselves, at least sometimes, in a manner that is so clearly particulate-like that you would bet your very own bottom that this was a billiard ball universe.  Nope.  No particles.  Just a bunch of waves.

Of course, this was fascinating stuff, and it began to be taught to the next generation and slowly disseminated into the public, but suddenly a war caught on, and everyone working on these problems turned their attention instead to blowing other peoples things up, and to enhancing production.  Naturally, such tasks are deeply concerned with the particulate nature of things.

Indeed, science was so successful that its method was suddenly adopted by governments all over the world, in order to better understand, control, and in some cases help, their citizens.  This was, of course, a horrendous turn of events, and has contributed significantly to science's undoing.

You see, the issue is something like this.  The Universe is just too complex.  Straight up.  There's just absolutely no way around it.  No matter how much you come to know, there will always be an infinite unknown. The physicists encountered this problem in the twenties.  The biologists tried desperately to ignore it, but with the failures of the Human Genome Project, have found themselves diving more and more often into what is now called 'complexity theory.'  And of course, the politicians, who surmised that reason was the ultimate tool in political strategy and economic planning, are failing left, right, and center to do anything truly rational, and, if anything, their rational decision making is only hastening the degradation of our systems.

So where does that leave us?  Science was so successful, it outdid itself.  The universe is so complicated, that science has undone itself.  How, if at all, can science redo itself?  How can we emerge from this mess of complexity with any sense of hope in Human knowledge or understanding about the universe, and about our capacity to plan for the future?

Well, this is where complexity theory, and a whole lot of statistics, comes into play.  We absolutely must acknowledge our ignorance of things.  So long as we continue to strive forth in science and policy with the assumption that we completely understand the inner workings of a system, and can manipulate and regulate that system according to such a 'perfect' understanding, we are doomed to fail.  Our medicines will make people more sick, our policies will hasten environmental and financial degradation.  There is no such thing as a perfect understanding.

Instead, we must come to understand that we ourselves are actually embedded in the systems we are studying.  This was the great discovery of the physicists that sort of fell by the way side when the war started.  We shouldn't think of controlling our environment - we are our environment.  We shouldn't think of controlling our bodies - we are our bodies.  The emerging science is beginning to understand this, and to contextualize itself in this manner.  Such an approach can only lead to greater understanding and awareness of the processes in our universe and our role in them.  We shouldn't think of controlling our economy - we are our economy.  And so the only way to heal is to do things naturally, openly, freely, cooperatively, in harmony with each other and our surroundings. Our rationality must become integral, and holistic.

So long as we ignorantly suppose that we understand a complex system well enough to make rational decisions, we will suffer unpredictable consequences.  But once we take as our starting premise that these systems are above rationality, because they are too complex, there are too many variables, and our simple, singular, sequential logistical thinking can not properly or effectively capture all their nuances, then we will begin to make real progress again, to lift ourselves out of the medical and societal messes we are in, and perhaps to evolve towards a new and glorious era in Human History.

So often we concern ourselves with discerning the parts that things are made of.  If we understand the parts, so it goes, we will understand the whole.  But often, there are too many parts, and the parts aren't well defined, and they flow freely into and out of one other.  In other words, our strict particulate rationality fails.  This is abundantly clear in medicine, where we attack organismal level problems by targeting specific individual molecules, effecting the entire system in ways we cant even begin to predict accurately.  And so the side effects of medication make people sicker than they were when they started out.  We need to put the parts aside, at first, and consider the activity of the whole.  This universe is a whole system.  Apparently, as far as our absolute best physics is concerned, it isn't actually made of parts.

This is not to say that there is no place for rational thinking anymore.  Only that it must be checked by the participatory reality of the universe we are embedded in.  Nothing is certain.  Everything is statistical.  And most certainly, the real world does not always conform to our simplified approximations of it.  So we must be real here, and practice statistics with great care, to study risk effectively, to humble ourselves, to work at the holistic level, and to plan for the unpredictable, because it is always the case that something novel may occur.

In fact, the very evolution of the cosmos depends on it.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

This story is partially about a man named Dont-Give-A-Fuck

Sovereignty died with the introduction of the internet.

Actually, he started to get sick a little further back, somewhere around the invention of computers, and eventually became extremely ill.  He is now quite dead.

Of course, Sovereignty's death has had little effect on the rest of Geo-Political Organization, which is still catching up with the matter.  You know how when a person dies, various organizations and government bodies continue to send mail and coupons and bills and surveys addressed to that person, as if he wasn't dead yet?  This is quite a lot like that.  Sovereignty is dead, but he died alone at home when he tripped over the toaster cord, which was in a new spot because he was re-arranging his kitchen, throwing out the deep fryer and installing a new oven, and banged his head on the table.  His sister, Socialism, a transvestite who used to date Communism (before he died too), was around, but they had had a falling out, and she was caught up in her own assortment of problems.  She was also well established in the LGBTQIA crowd, which has gained tremondous steam, and is doing quite well now.

Sovereignty's cousin, Anarchy, and his cousin's boyfriend, Dont-Give-A-Fuck, might have come, as Sovereignty and Don't-Give-A-Fuck actually made quite good friends, but they were on vacation in Africa.  And since his sister Self-Emergence and their half-brother Locally-Organized-Ever-Changing-Flows were playing with dolphins in Brazil, nobody was around to report on Sovereignty's death.  So everyone kept hollering on him, and sending him mail, and addressing him, and looking to him for answers, as if he were still alive, completely oblivious to the fact that he was actually dead, on his kitchen floor, being eaten away at by rats.

At this point, Sovereignty has been eroded to his skeleton.  There is basically nothing left but the bare bones.  The muscle is gone, the intellect is gone, the action is gone  It is quite gruesome, and it has actually started to stink up the apartment quite terribly, if not the whole hallway.

The hallway was actually empty, unoccupied, vacant.  Aside from Sovereignty (who is now dead), and the myriad buggers chewing away at whatever is left of his flesh and blood, all the other tenants either died sometime ago, or moved on to bigger and better things.  Most likely they got caught up in the cult that Finance started before he got married (to himself), or else just retired to small islands to play with the waves and marvel at the stars.  God how Sovereignty used to wish he could just retire to small islands to play with the waves and marvel at the stars.

The biochemical-blizzard-zoo of microbial-metabo-symbiosys meticulously morphing Sovereignty's body into fizzle-heavy-decompost more or less became an entity unto itself.  I'd hardly have been able to justify so many adjectives if it hadn't.  Naturally, it made it's way into the apartment vents and airway routing systems, establishing a steady flow towards the main level apartments and downspouts, eventually oozing out onto the streets.

The people have begun to notice.  The news, especially, has begun to notice.  "Face-for-Station here at one million Orion street, where a bizarre ooze has begun to, well Ooze! out from this apartment building, which only a week ago was promised to be taken care of personally by Local-Big-Blockhead.  Local-Big-Blockhead is planning a benefit dinner in order to raise the necessary funds for care-taking-ofness of the building.  Many Financites are expected to attend."

Of course, Finance and Local-Big-Blockhead don't give a hoot's hollow hailstorm about such-and-such a building.  But since they're supposedly on the case, everyone else is off it, and so no one has bothered to go upstairs.

Now, Anarchy, and her boyfriend Dont-Give-A-Fuck, who if you remember were in Africa, playing with children and teaching them how to read and write, had returned, and Dont-Give-A-Fuck, who, though he was known to certainly not give a fuck, missed his old buddy Sovereignty, and thus intended to pay him a visit, if not at least to hit with a hassle for spending all his time among adults.  Actually, they also had special news for Sovereignty.

It hardly took a second for Anarchy to figure out what was going on when they got to Sovereignty's building.  There was a huge crowd outside, behind a short metal fence, just observing; mesmerized, perhaps, by the steady oozing flow.  Anarchy had seen enough shit in her life to recognize that particular style of ooze.  She also caught the stench.

When they went upstairs, Anarchy didn't hesitate to break down the door.  She was certainly a pretty sort of lady, but built as fuck and ready to take you out.  And I must say, when She and her boyfriend walked into the room, Dont-Give-A-Fuck might have given a fuck.

Giving a fuck though he might have been about the tragic death of a friend, the couple had some reason for celebration.  Anarchy was, in fact, pregnant (the news they wanted to share with Sovereignty), and if one light in the family went out, at least a new one was turning on.

Around this time, too, Self-Emergence (Sovereignty's sister), and Locally-Organized-Ever-Changing-Flows (Sovereignty and Self-Emergence's half brother) returned from Brazil, just lit with excitement about the joy of living and the free exchange of ideas and information that they witnessed among dolphin communities.  Raunchy!  Riveting!  Rapturous!  What fantastic possibilities for Humanity!

Of course, meeting up with Anarchy and Dont-Give-A-Fuck, and hearing the news about Sovereignty wasn't particularly delighting, but it did occur to all parties involved that this was something of an opportunity.  It was something of a chance for creative innovation in the name of their cousin/brother/friend.  A chance to band together and embark on something fresh and exciting, encapsulating everything they had worked upon as individuals their entire life.  A chance to bring it all together to do good for Humanity.

At least that's what Sovereignty tried to do.  At least, that's how it was in the beginning, when Finance was still young, a sharp witted bulls-eye shooter, rocking slam-dunks and alley-oops, yet to be phased by the colossal failures and flaming-tire-pile of suppressed embarrassment and mis-allocation of energy that became the twentieth century.

No matter that.  This is twenty one.  Perhaps, like for American youth, our Civilization (considered in the totally arbitrary but curious aging system which began with the a man called Jesus (who was more probably a mushroom) and continues HERE, with us, today, a little over a month into our twenty first birthday) has finally become of age, and may officially, on a socially accepted and non-interfered with basis, get fuckin' shit-faced.

Consider, Briefly:

Dont-Give-A-Fuck loves to get shitfaced.  He does it quite frequently.  However, he is highly conscious about the matter, and will absolutely do no such thing as lose-his-freakin-mind-in-a-bowl-of-Yager-drenched-titties around the children.  And this is a respectable attitude.  Anarchy, on the hand, shitfaced though she might like to get, finds herself so revolted by Dont-Give-A-Fucks shit-dripping face that she hasn't had all that much interest in pursuing the matter for herself.
Self-Emergence and Locally-Organized-Ever-Changing-Flows weren't particularly interested in booze.  Sure, they indulged, but the stuff was more often a hindrance then it was a helper.  Besides, they were always drunk on each-others capacity for playful innovation and comic-cosmic-consciousness anyway, so booze didn't particularly oftenly occur to them.

End Consideration.

So, the four of them decided to clean up the mess.  While everyone else stood around outside, they took up their mop baskets and rubber gloves, and set to disinfecting Sovereignty's apartment, and giving his body a proper burial.

We don't have to go particularly into the details of this chore.  Suffice it to say that it is just awful.

But what will happen when the job is complete, when Sovereignty's death is made apparent, and the mess cleaned up?  What Geo-Political landscape will arise in his Wake?

Dont-Give-A-Fuck won't give a fuck what landscapes will arise in Sovereignty's wake.  And this is a respectable attitude.

But among Anarchy, Self-Emergence, and Locally-Organized-Ever-Changing flows, something of an extraordinary beauty is stirring.  It is something which has repeated itself many times over in the myriad-mayhem of universes past and future.  Something which defines the very mechanism
by which time unravels
by which information accumulates
by which the Whole-She-Bang comes eye to eye with herself
eyelids flittering
lovingly swiveling
day-dreaming stars to infinite.

And that something, dear people, is us, in our universal essence, in our capacity for the exhibition of complete and utter novelty through fantastic innovation and furious design right up against the very fringe of the thing.  And this is not just us.  This is the way of the very universe, which we are so deeply embedded as that it becomes practically annoying to even bother with the concept.  But that infinite capacity for meta-material creation and accelerated novelty, which lies within us all, is precisely what will raise us to our highest heights as we rise out of the ashes of the death of our most beloved Sovereignty.

Long live Self-Emergence and Locally-Organized-Ever-Changing-Flows.

(nobody gives a fuck about Don't-Give-A-Fuck)

Buckminster Fuller - A Guide to Spaceship Earth

So I'm currently reading Buckminster Fuller's "A Guide To Spaceship Earth."
It is absolutely fantastic.

Part of what captivates me so much about good ole' Bucky is his no-bullshit-tell-it-like-it-is-you-must-be-crazy-if-you-think-the-universe-is-not-profound attitude.  Let's take for instance the title of the document I am reading.

Consider our position.  Here we are, on a fantastic space-craft (that is really what the Earth is), ripping through seeming emptiness at thousands of miles per hour around our enormous mother-ship, the life-giving sun.  Not only are we on a space-ship zipping through space at such incredible speeds we can't even fathom them, we are on a space-ship that has been zipping through space at such incredible speeds we can't even fathom them for a duration (4 billion years!) that is probably even more difficult to fathom than the speed we're zipping at.  And to think, if it weren't for astronomy and geophysics, we wouldn't even know!!  Talk about a well engineered space-craft.  Can you even feel all that acceleration?

So that's one hell of a situation to be in.  I mean, it's a hell-enough-of a situation to be in even if you don't know about the cosmic magnitude of the circumstance, ie. that the unvierse has pooled its resources and energy budget into some exuberant structural and systems engineering on a small rock around a medium sized fire-ball somewhere along the outer spiral arm of this here Milky Way Galaxy.  But to come to terms with the facts of the matter, that HERE WE ARE, heirs of Universal Energy and Cosmic Becoming, zipping through god-knows-what-the-stuff-called-SPACE-really-is, on this fantastic Spaceship, is an altogether profound situation.

I mean what the fuck?!

Seriously.  What are we supposed to do?!  Here is this fantastically engineered space ship, equipped with full regenerative capacity and practically perennial propulsion, carrying on its own business of zipping and zapping while all sorts of myriad interesting things occur within the ships compartments and flight decks, virtually oblivious to the literally stellar circumstances of the craft they ride on.  And of course, for those that have become privy to at least the galactically local aspects of the circumstance, there isn't a guide or a manual or an instruction set or a help-forum to be found.  Wouldn't it be nice if there was an, hosted by advanced alien civilizations, offering help and advice and direction to us newbs in the experiment of intelligent life?

So seriously, what the fuck?!

What do we do?  Well, first of all, we must collect observations.  We must get to know what kind of ship we're on, what its engine consists of, how it operates, what its relation to the mother-ship is, and so on.  We have done a relatively good job of that.  Relative to whom?  Let's say the kangaroos and pythons.  I can only imagine that the Cetaceans have a better grip on the thing than we do, despite not being able to actually get a physical grip on anything, flippers and slippery skin and all.  But given that our spaceship is over 70% water, its conceivable that organisms exploring the water might have a better handle on the systematics of the thing than those confined to land.   Of course we're no longer confined to land, and now we fall freely from space, which is a fun-recreational-quasi-cosmic milestone that will probably lead to the death of many young adventurers tired of terrestrial-adrenaline-rushes and searching for the next kick, before it leads to productive exploration of the atmosphere and beyond.  I hope our parachute technology improves considerably, or that RedBull figures out how to actually engineer wings (I bet you it's coming, otherwise they might get sued for false advertising).

Anyways, the next step is more important.  We need to apply our observations.  If we sum the observations as such: "We are members of a species of organism which has evolved along with other organisms out of the abundant but finite resources of this planet, developing a novel form of generalized intelligence and visuo-kinesthetic capacities which allow us to manipulate and abstract upon the myriad resources of our space ship, providing many-fold opportunities for innovation and consumption.  However, we are growing at an exponential pace and ARE CERTAIN to over deplete the space-ships resources such that it will no longer be able to sustain its crew, who will be doomed to die a hollow death spinning thousands of miles per hour around a sun which can't provide fuel any more effectively than it has for the past few billion years", then we find that not only is our circumstance spectacular, it is somewhat dire, for, as any competent human being with internet access and an awareness of global events knows, we are living in a geo-political shit storm, where all of the above facts are, if not harshly denied, then blatantly ignored.

The shit-storm has everything to do with mentality.  As Bucky points out, much of it is based on thermodynamics, which established the concept entropy, which basically states that, left to itself, the organization of a system must decrease, that is, it must dissipate energy.  In other words, systems are running down.  Psychologically, this translates into the following: "If all systems are running down, then the Earth system is running down, and since there may not be enough to go around, there will certainly not be enough to go around in the future.  Thus we must protect our own and fight every man for himself.  Like in Nature, only the strong survive"

And so we have wars and republicans and democrats and trivial political flings filled with useless jabbering and basically the whole system has gotten up, exchanged its face with its ass, and sat down again.  Completely useless.  Of course, despite entropy being a universal concept, its implementation here is faulty, for while entropy runs systems down when they are LEFT TO THEIR OWN DEVICES (ie. lacking in innovative design and energy input), it may actually encourage self-emergence and novel organizational capacity in the context of innovative design and energy input.  Take the origin of life itself, for example!

So here then is our current position.  Geo-politically, we are Sisyphus pushing his rock perennially up the hill, and no matter what Camus has to say on the subject, we are getting nowhere, and certainly not enjoying ourselves.  On the other hand, armed with 1) an emerging theoretical understanding of the nature of non-equilibrium thermodynamics and self-emergence (where entropy runs systems up instead of down) and 2) an emerging practical understanding of open-source-cross-platform-free-exchange-of-ideas and self-emergent collaboration in the computer sciences, there may be some hope for us after all.

I think Bucky's vision is extraordinary.  Given enough human ingenuity, we can design ourselves out of any mess.  We need only to assemble and do.  It would also be helpful, of course, if the political system stopped interfering with every form of progress that emerges under (around?) the sun.  But in the open-source world, politics becomes irrelevant.  Border's fall down.  True power is put back in the hands of the people, so long as they are willing to share.  And with that infrastructure growing, at an accelerated pace, there may be hope for us astronauts after all.

Design will save the world.  Enjoy the rest of your flight here, on Spaceship Earth.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Alchemy and the Undercurrents of History

This word Alchemy comes up all the time.  It is probably most associated, at least in literature and cultural understanding, with the historical pursuit to transform lead into gold, or to transform other base metals into precious ones.  But there is also a conception among the populace that alchemy has something to do with transformation in general, with the appearance of novelty, and with the enhancement of some system by ingenious means, whether that system be physical, chemical, biological, psychological, social, technological, or whatever.

Now, among scientists the word usually comes loaded as, "Oh, alchemy is just what people practiced before they understood the real laws of chemistry, before they knew about the periodic table and the whole number combinations of atoms into molecules.  Alchemy wasn't really science.  It was just sort of perverse experimentation."  In a sense that is very true.  Alchemy as practiced was always tied into extraordinary notions of the world, of the spirits that operated within it, and of the potential for the human agent to cooperate with the spirits in order to attain the Philosopher's Stone, say, or the Elixir of Life.  But because of that very fact, because of the very extraordinary nature in which Alchemy was conceived by those who practiced it, it actually ran much deeper into the fabric of human psychology and culture than 'perverse experimentation' might suggest.  In fact, I'd like to suggest that Alchemy has formed the very undercurrents that steer the course of history.

In quite general terms, let us take Alchemy to be the processes of transformation that occur at the boundary of what is known and what is unknown.  It is here, at the frontier of knowledge, that the alchemist frolics as he mixes and matches, ponders and pursues, experiments in extravagance and boldly strides forth to adventure in experience at the bubbling edge of human perception, cognition, and control.  It is here that the mythological hero of each and every culture, the Prometheus of Greece and the Indra of India, the human individual in his infinite potential for creative exploration; it is here that he first encounters what was until then unknown to himself, to his society; here that he integrates this novelty into his understanding of the world, for the first time.  It is here that the capacity for cultural and psychological evolution greets him, bearing the sly but genuine grin of eternal creativity.

Now, the essential point for the connection between alchemy and history is this.  An investigation which was once considered alchemy, or equivalently, which had once taken place at the boundaries of current knowledge, becomes common knowledge and thus no longer the domain of alchemy once it is introduced to and accepted by the masses.  That is, as the alchemist's discoveries are integrated into society, society is effectively upgraded, and the boundaries of knowledge encroach infinitesimally on the infinite unknown.  The alchemist is forced to move on, into novel territory, once again.

A determining factor in the adaptability and evolution of cultures, then, is the capacity by which they can accept and integrate the investigations of alchemists.  Cultures which foster alchemy and which have effective means for integrating novelty will thus naturally be more adaptable to changing geopolitical conditions and more successful in the pursuits of civilization.  Free, open exchange of ideas is absolutely essential for a robust civilization.  On the other hand, cultures which suppress such investigations, which foster fear instead of praise, which price ideas and restrict their flow, will find themselves immobilized and stagnant on the world stage in times of crisis or unprecedented change.  They wont be able to attain the proper upgrades, so to speak, to interface effectively with the world in changing times.  And times are always changing.

So if we look back at history, we find this perennial pursuit, this drive to derive, this obsession with progression, this overwhelming impulse bubbling beneath the surface of cutural normality, disguised as a quest to transform base metals into gold, altogether steering the infrastructure of human civilization through the torrents of history, leading us to here, right now.  Today.

So what does Alchemy look like today?  Well, it looks the same as it ever looked - it looks like people pursuing near impossible problems on the edge of what is acceptable, what is known.  And while the devices and equipment look like they may have changed, and while we have technically fulfilled the age old superficial objective of turning lead into gold (ala nuclear chemistry), we find ourselves still very much faced with the same predicament: of consistently updating our cultures in order to adapt to changing environmental and technological conditions.  And that is what Alchemy has always been. 

So let us march this grand tradition of alchemical exploration into the future with us.  Let us be weird and wild, crazy and like-child, investigative and inspired.  Let us play merrily on the brink of knowledge and acceptability.  After all, it is our creative exploration that updates our civilization, that expands our realities.

Merry beings, dear Alchemist.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Metals and the Alchemy of Life

There's this awesome question about the origin of life, how it started or where it came from.  For all I really know, it could have come from anywhere; mushroom spores from another Galaxy or super advanced slug creatures laying eggs on our planet far from home.  Regardless, I think its a fun exercise to approach the problem using the constraint that life evolved wholly on Earth.  Then we are left with only the materials of the early Earth, and of course an abundance of sunlight.

The early earth had lots of water, lots of nitrogen, lots of carbon, and lots of metals.  These are the essential ingredients for life.  People often neglect the significance of metals in biological systems, but they are absolutely essential.  Your cells wouldn't get oxygen if it weren't for iron.  They wouldn't be able to communicate if it weren't for calcium.  Your brain wouldn't be able to maintain its wiring if it weren't for zinc.  Most of your proteins wouldn't function if it weren't for an arsenal of metal ions.  And so on.  But the importance of metals really derives from their relationship with electrons, that is, their knack for letting electrons flow.

Flowing electrons are behind everything in our civilization.  All electricity, technology, and power applications involve flowing electrons.  Not surprisingly, so do living organisms.  But living organisms aren't full scale conductors the way copper wires and platinum electrodes are.  They're semiconductors, like the transistors inside your computer, but based on carbon instead of silicon.

Electronic processes in the body happen in the form of 'redox' reactions, also known as REDuction-OXidation.  Your entire metabolism is a complex network of redox reactions.  A redox reaction is simply a reaction between molecules where there is a transfer of electrons.  One molecule gains electrons, one molecule loses them.  Redox.  The neat thing about them, though, is the energy associated with the electron as it hops from one molecule to another.  If you play your cards right, you might be able to harness some of this energy to do something functional with.  And that, my friends, is the secret of living systems.  It's also the secret to batteries and fuel cells, but in a less elegant manner.

So in the beginning there were places on earth that were both very wet and very dense, gel-like places with an abundance of metals and simple small molecules bumping into each other in confined regions.  Due to the heat of the early Earth and the incoming light, chemical reactions occurred that produced the first organic molecules and their combinations.  At the same time, heat, light, and heterogeneity were pumping redox reactions left, right, and center.  At some point, an organic molecule shows up that can participate in the redox reaction - it's no longer just between metals and water.

Then everything changes.  Now organic molecules are picking up and giving off electrons as they're pumped by the metals, facilitating even more reactions and molecular evolution.  They're also coupling themselves to the metal redox processes, offering an enormous space of possible pathways for electrons to flow.  This in turn increases the opportunities for other molecules to couple with the redox processes, and, potentially, to suction some of the electron's energy to do something interesting.

An explosion of couplings occur between metals and organic molecules to facilitate redox processes.  The earth is ablaze in early biochemical electronics.  Somewhere along the line a curious organic molecule shows up.  He's called RNA.  He's a chain of smaller molecules (nucleotides) that can bind to other molecules, break them, and combine them.  He can even bind other nucleotides and arrange them into a copy of himself.  He is a replicator.

Replication is certainly necessary for life, but it is not sufficient.  For a replicator to actually become something living, it must be replicating meaningful information; in particular, information that codes for the maintenance and functioning of a redox network.  Viruses and prions, two examples of replicators that are not defined as living, do not code for redox processes.  It turns out that RNA, in certain configurations, can bind to a plethora of small organic molecules.  In a sense, the region of RNA that binds the molecule also 'codes' for the molecules, and when the RNA is replicated, so too is the information for 'binding' to the molecule.  If the molecule of interest is involved in a redox process, then our RNA contains meaningful information.

RNA is awesome because it not only contains information, it acts on it.  It physically goes and binds to the molecule it codes for.  In so doing, it probably disrupts the redox process the molecule was part of.  This opens the floor for the redox process to explor other pathways, in other words to be modified by the activity of the RNA, which has done nothing more than bind a molecule that was part of the pathway.

Now here's a unique point.  If an RNA can bind to a molecule, then it isn't too much of a stretch for us to suppose that the same RNA might be able to build that molecule itself.  In fact, we've recently discovered that some modern RNA sequences do just that (well, they actually code for a protein which builds the molecule that they bind to).  So now suppose you've got an RNA which can bind to a molecule and make that same molecule.  So it can only do one or the other.  If its bound to the molecule, its not making it, and the redox pathway is broken since the molecule is unavailable.  If its not bound to the molecule, its synthesizing it, and the molecule can participate in the redox reaction.  But if it makes too much, it'll start binding to it again, and slow down the redox process.  Suddenly we have controlled feedback regulation of a metabolic circuit.  BAM! - get a bunch of those interacting, and you've got a living system.

Of course now there's all the problems of the origin of protein and DNA, their relationships with RNA, origin of the cell membrane, and so forth.  That stuff would be fun to discuss.  So too would considerations of entropy and the free energy storage of these systems.  But the key milestones have already been overcome: replicators that encode meaningful information about the construction and modulation of metabolic circuits.  That's the essential.  And I'd like to emphasize that the entire thing was built around metals and water.

It's interesting to consider our evolving relationship with metals.  As the posterchildren of material strength and functionality, they've been integral to human evolution since the beggining.  Not only do they make respiration and our bodies possible, but we organize human history into the stone age, bronze age, iron age, and so forth.  Now we are in a silicon age.  When you cosider that stone is really composed of metal (metal oxides, actually), then you realize that our history is characterized by the metals we used, which shaped everything about our lives.  This is true still today.

And especially today, with new technologies involving the curious quantum properties of metals constantly evolving, metals become an ever more significant and scarce resource.  Rare metals are used more and more frequently in high tech applications involving lasers and magnetism, powering our gadgets and our clean energy future.  They are the cornerstone of our reality.

Know your metals.  Alchemy never ends.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Vegetable Spirits

 In "The Botany of Desire", Michael Pollan breaks down how four plants, apple, tulips, cannabis, and potatoes, have shaped and manipulated Humanity in profound ways.  In each case, we find a bivalent relationship between man and plant, showering it in praise when times are good, and condemning it when times are bad.  But in each case, bad times are the result of human overindulgence. 

Apples: apples, hailing from Kazakhstan, are normally bitter when planted straight from seed.  Only a select few of the apples might be sweet, and these have to be cloned, as they have been for hundreds of years now.  Bitter apples, however, are perfect for making cider, and hence the primary use of apples in America before the last century was as booze

Tulips: Tulips are prized, obviously for their beauty.  In the seventeenth century, tulips made a huge splash among the Dutch, driving them into what is now known as Tulip Mania.  The price of a single tulip could be as high as that of a coastal estate, or what might now be $10-15 million.  The most beautiful tulips were those with wild colorful designs on their leaves.  Such heady designs were caused, unbeknownst to the Dutch, by viruses.

Cannabis: The cannabis plant is perhaps the most pampered plant on the planet.  Though it is technically a weed, the oily resin produced by females to catch male pollen contains high concentrations of a psychoactive compound, THC, which modulates human consciousness in a (usually) desireable manner, rendering this weed highly desirable.  The plant also has a variety of medicinal effects.  By growing females only, growers put the plants into a state of sexual frustration, a whole group of sexy ladies clothed in dark greens and purples and flickers of red looking hot for a lay and finding none, causing them, in effect, to layer up in more and more sticky jewelery, those cannabinoid dense jewels that glisten on the surface of their buds.

In the late 1980s, it was discovered that there exists a receptor system in the brain that binds THC.  It was later found that there are other molecules, made by the body, that bind to these receptors.  One of these, called anandamide (taken from the Sanskrit 'ananda' = 'bliss'), is a crucial molecule in brain cell communication and has been found to play a major role in the art of updating memory - in some sense, the art of forgetting.  Sound familiar?

Potatoes: Originally cultivated in the Andes by the Inca, potatoes changed the course of history in numerous ways when they were brought to Europe.  On the one hand, they provided a dense bundle of calories that could grow in the harsher conditions of northern Europe, eradicating periodic famines that were known to occur.  On the other hand, countries like Ireland, for example, became so reliant on potatoes that they would practice mono culture, ie. growing only one crop.  So when a ship shows up one evening in the early nineteenth century with a bug that Ireland had never seen before, the country's potato stock got wiped out in a few days.  And since they were growing nothing else, they went very, very hungry

In the modern age, a similar mono-culture excersice exists with regards to potatoes (as well as many other crops, unfortunatley).  McDonalds, an enormous potato buyer, is interested in only one type of potato, the Russet Burbank.  This lone variety is monocropped consistently across the continent, often obliging the use of heavy pesticide coverage.

Farmers who choose biodiversity and organic farming practices can grow a variety of different potato types and employ natural methods to protect plants (like ladybugs).  Since they don't have to spend millions on chemical pesticides and since they can fetch higher prices for the quality of their products in the market, organic farmers are more and more able to keep up economically with their more chemically inclined competitors.

Hats off to you, organic farmer.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

This Is NoT Echnology

Nanotechnology drops nanobots
    within the cantaloupe pots.
Nothing is ever the same

Nobody saw, she swept souls with her paw
    she held her melody taught.
Nothing is felt to be sane

Nirod the great, had to care for a state,
    we all knelt for his fate,
Nothing is something in weight

Nilch means the sum, of what would never become
    Nuts, we've only got one ..

Hey! Quit blowing bubbles in my marmalade!

Monday, 2 July 2012

On Wishes and Western Walls

It seems to me that humans have a profound preoccupation with wishing, and I find it interesting because it's probably something other animals don't do.  It's unlikely that a dog or a cat or a rabbit or a mouse or a lizard or a bird or a donkey or a rattle snake will sit back on a rock or a tree and think to themselves, "damn, I wish I had some bubble gum to keep my mouth busy while I hunt for food.". Not because they don't know anything about bubble gum – they’ve probably seen plenty of the stuff in places they shouldn’t - but because they are so damned caught up in the present and the reality of what's given and what needs getting that they haven't the time to devote to wishing.  So instead they set out doing.
Humans, on the other hand, walk around wishing all the time. We happen to be lucky enough (or unlucky enough, depending on your perspective) to have been endowed with the capacity to step out of the present, to reflect on future and past, and to formulate in abstract sound symbols (language) our desires.  But there's a particularly interesting thing about Human formulations of desire, or wishes: namely, that some wishes are more prestigious, shall we say, than others. And its not that they are made prestigious by their content, or by their contender, but rather by their context.  
So we blow out candles with a wish on our birthday.  We huff on daffodils and sleepies, kiss wishchips and sing to shooting stars. And we humble ourselves before some Lord Almighty on particular days, get all nice and dressed up, and truck our asses down to a building designated for prestigious wishing, or praying, as some have come to call it.
Now, it’s undoubted that there's some sort of relationship between the content of the wish and the seriousness, say, of the context.  Thus, birthday candles are hoped on for presents, shootings stars for romance, and places of worship for health.  But in the end its all the same phenomenon, and you have just as much right to wish on your birthday candles for world peace and ecological health as you do to wish in synagogue for the new Samsung Galaxy S3 Android phone.  Its totally up to you.
However, there is a certain place, equipped with a certain object, that in my cultural tradition of Judaism holds the highest prestige of all wishing platforms.  It is the Western Wall, a two thousand year old stone structure that lies at the heart of half our planet's global politic and cultural air.  For thousands of years, this has been the cornerstone of Jewish wishing, the pinnacle of context.  More psychological energy is spent on that wall than probably any other on the planet.  And I'm not the type to suppose that material objects present in human perception are immune from the influence of psychological energies - that would be completely absurd.  These things gobble up our psychology, and spit back goblets and philosophers’ stones, and an entire tradition of alchemy and interface with the physical world.  
So here we have a wall, a collective stone of philosopher, priest, prophesier, poet, and pious, imbued with the spirit of a race that wants nothing more than to secure its future, and to maintain its home. A structure that attracts people from all over the globe in stone dry white and grey blandness, cooking under the beating sun.  An assembly of stone with absolutely no importance and absolutely all the importance that a group of individual humans could agree to bestow on a physical object.  The pristine prestige of the holy of holies, the sacred haven amidst a world of profane.
I happened to be lucky enough this week to find myself in this presence of our object of discussion, our pristine piece of poetic plain - the holiest of holy walls.  And, indeed, never in my life have I experienced such a powerful place for placing a wish.  Granted I sometimes shiver when I reflect in front of birthday candles on the state of the world and ecological degradation, the demise of Human dignity and intelligence, wishing for a future in which forests and rivers and havens of natural beauty are protected en mass from the onslaught of industrial destruction and noise heavy polluting machines.  But standing in front of that wall sent more than a shiver down my spine. It sent a thunderstorm and an earthquake.  Here was the place where hundreds of thousands had come to stick notes in a wall and cry out to the sky for salvation and good fortune, for themselves and for others, for the end of time.  Here was the place that thousands of young men and women had died for – the place that symbolized the history of an entire Human race.  And here I was, and I could feel all of it.
 I felt the massive energy that poured into that object on a regular basis. I marveled at the capacity for a single material structure to handle such psychological pressure.  Granted, the piece that is wished upon makes up about 1/1000 of the total mass of the wall, the rest being hidden behind houses and other structures, but the outpouring of human will and desire that descends into that place is no less astounding. So I hugged the wall and felt 2000 years of Human History and Wailing. I felt my body become one with the wall, one with history, one with God.  My Being flowed in and out of this great stone structure as I looked within and reflected on the world, and on my position in it. 
I reflected on the hate and the greed that surrounds us.  The misfortune and violence that penetrates so much of our planet.  The despise and demise that is perpetrated by such a large fraction of this giant rock ball’s inhabitants.  I felt the pain that rings out from thousands of years of Human suffering.
I felt the screams of the Earth – her crying.  I felt her shiver and tremble below the immense and unsustainable consumption of her most blessed inhabitants.  I felt her forests and animals disappearing.  Her oceans succumbing to acidity and pollution.  Her skies turning multi coloured in a dazzling array of dis-ease.  Her beautiful, luscious body being raped by The Man, gouged from within, torn from her own soul.  I wept for her, and kissed the wall.
And then I felt the possibility, the opportunity – the meaning of hope and the joy of Becoming.  I felt invigorated and empowered, as if I, a measly Human child of the Western-not-so-wild, might make a difference.  I felt meaning – I felt the power of collective human consciousness, the capacity for a community to agree to bestow in physical objects immense symbolism and psychological energy.  I felt meaning – I felt the capacity for a community to agree.  I felt Humanity.  I feared Humanity.  I loved Humanity.
And then I prayed.
But I prayed not to an abstract figure whose identity is defined by an old book.  I prayed not to a man on the mount with a tablet and a ten-count and a scepter and a beard that flows.  I prayed not to a giant cock commanding lightning shocks and howling at those who disobey.  Nor did I pray, to the Commander of Days, to the Father, to the one who Knows.
But I prayed to myself.  I prayed to an infinite energy.  I prayed to the Way – the Dao.  I prayed to my soul, which is eternal and old, and equivalent with the Universal in every which way.  I prayed for the power and might to know what is wrong and what is right and the courage to act accordingly.  I prayed for our future, for my children and their children, for the generations of Humanity that will follow.  I prayed to find within myself the capacity to lead, to work by example, to be the best damn Human I can be.  And I prayed that others would follow suit.  I prayed that we might all, under the influence of some collective consciousness, be swayed to make better choices – to consider the impact of our actions on the world at large when we make decisions.  To live not just for ourselves, but for the entirety of Life on Earth.
This is our Space Ship.  And we have only one.
Before I had sufficient time to close my prayer, to seal my thoughts, to chant my OMs and wrap my wish in symbolism for insertion into the wall, I was torn away – by the hustle of the tour I was on.  So I walked back to the bus with my grandfather, and erupted into tears.  But these weren’t tears of sadness.  These were tears of energy, of power.  So much energy had descended into my body in those few minutes at the wall that before it had time to flow back, before I had the opportunity to discharge, the connection was severed.  And so I discharged with an outpouring of tears – tears that symbolize the greatness of Human compassion for all Life on this planet.  Tears that symbolize the power of a wish.  Tears for our Future.
It was time to board the bus, to go to a counter-terrorism shooting range, to learn some of the skills used to protect the people of this incredible country so that they can return, once again, to the Wall - so that they can make their wish.
Israel.  A hell of a time.  A heaven of a country.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

So I Just Smoked Some DMT

So I just smoked some DMT.  I haven't done that in nearly a year now.  I can't really say why.  To some extent it has to do with fear - fear of the power of this substance, the power of my own mind.  But the last few days have been so wholly engaging and rewarding, so filled with joy and the thrill of living that today I somehow found within me the courage to take a toke.  I wonder if it has something to do with all the time I've spent in the woods this past week, searching for mushrooms?

It was a small dose, no doubt.  The motor hardly even turned on, if at all - no vroom vroom eery cranks turning high flying hereitisgetreadyforblastoff.  No high pitched squeal.  No waterfall of colours.  Simply a heightened sense of things.  Eyes closed, I could hear the whistles of the wind and the sounds of the Guelph city life a little more clearly, a little deeper.  Within myself, I could see the shapes and flow of the waves that make up the underlying layers of my consciousness.  They are so beautiful, and so reminiscent of the patterns I find in natural systems, in fractals.  My hands felt weird.  It dawned on me - not in any kind of intellectual sense, but in a very tactile fashion - how truly weird and wonderful it is to exist, at all, let alone as a Human Being.

I sat still, breathing.  I could sense the profundity of what it was to take a breath.  To inhale air into this fantastically complex holistic being is to ignite the process of creation itself.  It is the very act that sustains life.  And I could feel the air as it swirled into my lungs, twirling off in vortices, embedding itself in the geometry of my consciousness, nourishing body and brain.  I envisioned spiny spiky things.  They reminded me of neurons, with their countless membrane extensions, the dendrites and axon terminals that coordinate the bursts of electrical signals that govern my existence. 

And so I thought about my brain.  Not in any kind of intellectual sense - it had become clear by now that classical, sequential reasoning using linear linguistic structures was a furiously futile endeavour in the face of this beast of beauty we call the Universe - but again in a tactile sense.  I began to really feel my brain.  To feel what it means to be me, subsisting by way of neurochemical geometries.  To feel the countless projections and connections and interwoven circuitry that pervades my skull, and underlies my thinking.

And again I thought, isn't it marvelous that we can communicate at all?

I think I'll have to smoke some more DMT.