The interplay that brings together order and disorder

Alan Lightman writes:

Planets, stars, life, even the direction of time all depend on disorder. And we human beings as well. Especially if, along with disorder, we group together such concepts as randomness, novelty, spontaneity, free will and unpredictability. We might put all of these ideas in the same psychic basket. Within the oppositional category of order, we can gather together notions such as systems, law, reason, rationality, pattern, predictability. While the different clusters of concepts are not mirror images of one another, like twilight and dawn, they have much in common.

Our primeval attraction to both order and disorder shows up in modern aesthetics. We like symmetry and pattern, but we also relish a bit of asymmetry. The British art historian Ernst Gombrich believed that, although human beings have a deep psychological attraction to order, perfect order in art is uninteresting. ‘However we analyse the difference between the regular and the irregular,’ he wrote in The Sense of Order (1979), ‘we must ultimately be able to account for the most basic fact of aesthetic experience, the fact that delight lies somewhere between boredom and confusion.’ Too much order, we lose interest. Too much disorder, and there’s nothing to be interested in. My wife, a painter, always puts a splash of colour in the corner of her canvas, off balance, to make the painting more appealing. Evidently, our visual sweet-spot lies somewhere between boredom and confusion, predictability and newness.

Human beings have a conflicted relationship to this order-disorder nexus. We are alternately attracted from one to the other. We admire principles and laws and order. We embrace reasons and causes. We seek predictability. Some of the time. On other occasions, we value spontaneity, unpredictability, novelty, unconstrained personal freedom. We love the structure of Western classical music, as well as the free-wheeling runs or improvised rhythms of jazz. We are drawn to the symmetry of a snowflake, but we also revel in the amorphous shape of a high-riding cloud. We appreciate the regular features of pure-bred animals, while we’re also fascinated by hybrids and mongrels. We might respect those who manage to live sensibly and lead upright lives. But we also esteem the mavericks who break the mould, and we celebrate the wild, the unbridled and the unpredictable in ourselves. We are a strange and contradictory animal, we human beings. And we inhabit a cosmos equally strange. [Continue reading…]

John Ruskin: A prophet for our troubled times

Philip Hoare writes:

In 1964, Kenneth Clark set out the problems of loving John Ruskin. One was his fame itself. Like his sometime pupil Oscar Wilde (who, along with other of his Oxford students he persuaded to dig a road in Hinksey in order that they learn the dignity of labour), Ruskin defined the art and culture of his century. “For almost 50 years,” Clark wrote in his book, Ruskin Today, “to read Ruskin was accepted as proof of the possession of a soul.” Gladstone would have made him poet laureate “and was only prevented from doing so by the fact that [Ruskin] was out of his mind”.

Ruskin was a man who believed in angels but championed the most radical British artist of his time. He was a social reformer and utopian who was at heart a conservative reactionary and a puritan. He was a brilliant artist who ought to have been a bishop. He hated trains but invented the blog.

How can it be that a man so celebrated in his time is only fitfully remembered now, 200 years after his birth – and then mostly for a salacious story that he was too intimidated by the sight of his young wife’s pubic hair to perform on his wedding night? He’s a beardy Victorian worthy, preserved in sepia photographs and unread books with inexplicable titles – Unto This Last, Sesame and Lilies, Praeterita – consigned to the top shelves of charity shops.

The problem lies in the fact that Ruskin rejects all those presumptions even in his own lifetime. His watercolours of the natural world – from mosses to Swiss mountains – are astonishing, hyper-real representations of something close to his soul, a metaphysical reality. He declined to join the headlong rush of economic progress and rejected the mores of his class. In the famous portrait of him by John Everett Millais – the Pre-Raphaelite artist who, even as he painted the picture in the Scottish Highlands, was about to seduce Ruskin’s young wife, Effie Gray – he stands on a rock by a waterfall, as if dominating the terrain around him. He looks the picture of Victorian rectitude; but he was undermining the century with his crusade.

His first offence was to champion William Turner’s paintings. Almost intuitively, Ruskin understood the power of what Turner was trying to do. As the contemporary eco-philosopher Timothy Morton says, “art is from the future”; Ruskin saw that futurity in Turner. His second offence was to attack capitalism. As Clark notes, Tolstoy, Gandhi and Bernard Shaw thought him one of the greatest social reformers of his time. When members at the first meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party were asked which book had most influenced them, they answered Ruskin’s Unto This Last. Bernard Shaw pithily summed up Ruskin’s affront to his own class: he told them, “You are a parcel of thieves.” [Continue reading…]

My generation trashed the planet. I salute the children striking back


George Monbiot writes:

The disasters I feared my grandchildren would see in their old age are happening already: insect populations collapsing, mass extinction, wildfires, droughts, heatwaves, floods. This is the world we have bequeathed to you. Yours is among the first of the unborn generations we failed to consider as our consumption rocketed.

But those of us who have long been engaged in this struggle will not abandon you. You have issued a challenge to which we must rise, and we will stand in solidarity with you. Though we are old and you are young, we will be led by you. We owe you that, at least.

By combining your determination and our experience, we can build a movement big enough to overthrow the life-denying system that has brought us to the brink of disaster – and beyond. Together we must demand a different way, a life-giving system that defends the natural world on which we all depend. A system that honours you, our children, and values equally the lives of those who are not born. Together, we will build a movement that must – and will – become irresistible. [Continue reading…]

What science can tell us about how other creatures experience the world

Ross Andersen writes:

Amid the human crush of Old Delhi, on the edge of a medieval bazaar, a red structure with cages on its roof rises three stories above the labyrinth of neon-lit stalls and narrow alleyways, its top floor emblazoned with two words: birds hospital.

On a hot day last spring, I removed my shoes at the hospital’s entrance and walked up to the second-floor lobby, where a clerk in his late 20s was processing patients. An older woman placed a shoebox before him and lifted off its lid, revealing a bloody white parakeet, the victim of a cat attack. The man in front of me in line held, in a small cage, a dove that had collided with a glass tower in the financial district. A girl no older than 7 came in behind me clutching, in her bare hands, a white hen with a slumped neck.

The hospital’s main ward is a narrow, 40-foot-long room with cages stacked four high along the walls and fans on the ceiling, their blades covered with grates, lest they ensnare a flapping wing. I strolled the room’s length, conducting a rough census. Many of the cages looked empty at first, but leaning closer, I’d find a bird, usually a pigeon, sitting back in the gloom.

The youngest of the hospital’s vets, Dheeraj Kumar Singh, was making his rounds in jeans and a surgical mask. The oldest vet here has worked the night shift for more than a quarter century, spending tens of thousands of hours removing tumors from birds, easing their pain with medication, administering antibiotics. Singh is a rookie by comparison, but you wouldn’t know it from the way he inspects a pigeon, flipping it over in his hands, quickly but gently, the way you might handle your cellphone. As we talked, he motioned to an assistant, who handed him a nylon bandage that he stretched twice around the pigeon’s wing, setting it with an unsentimental pop.

The bird hospital is one of several built by devotees of Jainism, an ancient religion whose highest commandment forbids violence not only against humans, but also against animals. A series of paintings in the hospital’s lobby illustrates the extremes to which some Jains take this prohibition. In them, a medieval king in blue robes gazes through a palace window at an approaching pigeon, its wing bloodied by the talons of a brown hawk still in pursuit. The king pulls the smaller bird into the palace, infuriating the hawk, which demands replacement for its lost meal, so he slices off his own arm and foot to feed it.

I’d come to the bird hospital, and to India, to see firsthand the Jains’ moral system at work in the world. Jains make up less than 1 percent of India’s population. Despite millennia spent criticizing the Hindu majority, the Jains have sometimes gained the ear of power. During the 13th century, they converted a Hindu king, and persuaded him to enact the subcontinent’s first animal-welfare laws. There is evidence that the Jains influenced the Buddha himself. And when Gandhi developed his most radical ideas about nonviolence, a Jain friend played philosophical muse. [Continue reading…]

Your life choices aren’t just about what you want to do; they’re about who you want to be

Joshua Rothman writes:

In July of 1838, Charles Darwin was twenty-nine years old and single. Two years earlier, he had returned from his voyage aboard H.M.S. Beagle with the observations that would eventually form the basis of “On the Origin of Species.” In the meantime, he faced a more pressing analytical problem. Darwin was considering proposing to his cousin Emma Wedgwood, but he worried that marriage and children might impede his scientific career. To figure out what to do, he made two lists. “Loss of time,” he wrote on the first. “Perhaps quarreling. . . . Cannot read in the evenings. . . . Anxiety and responsibility. Perhaps my wife won’t like London; then the sentence is banishment and degradation into indolent, idle fool.” On the second, he wrote, “Children (if it Please God). Constant companion (and friend in old age). . . . Home, & someone to take care of house.” He noted that it was “intolerable to think of spending one’s whole life, like a neuter bee, working, working. . . . Only picture to yourself a nice soft wife on a sofa with good fire and books and music perhaps.”

Beneath his lists, Darwin scrawled, “Marry, Marry, Marry QED.” And yet, Steven Johnson writes, in “Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most,” “we have no evidence of how he actually weighed these competing arguments against each other.” Johnson, the author of “How We Got to Now” and other popular works of intellectual history, can’t help but notice the mediocrity of Darwin’s decision-making process. He points out that Benjamin Franklin used a more advanced pro-and-con technique: in what Franklin called “Prudential Algebra,” a numerical weight is assigned to each listed item, and counterbalancing items are then eliminated. (“If I find a Reason pro equal to some two Reasons con, I strike out the three . . . and thus proceeding I find at length where the Ballance lies,” Franklin explained to a friend.) Even this approach, Johnson writes, is slapdash and dependent upon intuition. “The craft of making farsighted choices—decisions that require long periods of deliberation, decisions whose consequences might last for years,” he concludes, “is a strangely under-appreciated skill.”

We say that we “decide” to get married, to have children, to live in particular cities or embark on particular careers, and in a sense this is true. But how do we actually make those choices? One of the paradoxes of life is that our big decisions are often less calculated than our small ones are. [Continue reading…]

David Suzuki: ‘It’s very, very late and urgent’ to take climate action if we want to prevent human extinction

 

Astronomers say it’s time to start taking the search for E.T. seriously

Science News reports:

Long an underfunded, fringe field of science, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence may be ready to go mainstream.

Astronomer Jason Wright is determined to see that happen. At a meeting in Seattle of the American Astronomical Society in January, Wright convened “a little ragtag group in a tiny room” to plot a course for putting the scientific field, known as SETI, on NASA’s agenda.

The group is writing a series of papers arguing that scientists should be searching the universe for “technosignatures” — any sign of alien technology, from radio signals to waste heat. The hope is that those papers will go into a report to Congress at the end of 2020 detailing the astronomical community’s priorities. That report, Astro 2020: Decadal Survey on Astronomy and Astrophysics, will determine which telescopes fly and which studies receive federal funding through the next decade. [Continue reading…]

Inside the struggle to define life

Ian Sample writes:

All the brain cells of life on Earth still cannot explain life on Earth. Its most intelligent species has uncovered the building blocks of matter, read countless genomes and watched spacetime quiver as black holes collide. It understands much of how living creatures work, but not how they came to be. There is no agreement, even, on what life is.

The conundrum of life is so fundamental that to solve it would rank among the most important achievements of the human mind. But for all scientists’ efforts – and there have been plenty – the big questions remain. If biology is defined as the study of life, on this it has failed to deliver.

But enlightenment may come from another direction. Rather than biology, some scientists are now looking to physics for answers, in particular the physics of information. Buried in the rules that shape information lie the secrets of life and perhaps even the reason for our existence.

That, at least, is the bold proposal from Paul Davies, a prominent physicist who explores the idea in his forthcoming book, The Demon in the Machine. Published next week, it continues a theme of thinking that landed Davies the $1m Templeton prize for contributions to religious thought and inquiry.

As director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at Arizona State University, Davies is well placed to spot the next wave that will crash over science. What he sees on the horizon is a revolution that brings physics and biology together through the common science of information.

“The basic hypothesis is this,” Davies says. “We have fundamental laws of information that bring life into being from an incoherent mish-mash of chemicals. The remarkable properties we associate with life are not going to come about by accident.”

The proposal takes some unpacking. Davies believes that the laws of nature as we know them today are insufficient to explain what life is and how it came about. We need to find new laws, he says, or at least new principles, which describe how information courses around living creatures. Those rules may not only nail down what life is, but actively favour its emergence. [Continue reading…]

What animals are thinking and feeling, and why it should matter

 

Chinese scientist who claimed to make genetically edited babies is kept under guard

The New York Times reports:

The Chinese scientist who shocked the world by claiming that he had created the first genetically edited babies is sequestered in a small university guesthouse in the southern city of Shenzhen, where he remains under guard by a dozen unidentified men.

The sighting of the scientist, He Jiankui, this week was the first since he appeared at a conference in Hong Kong in late November and defended his actions. For the past few weeks, rumors had swirled about whether Dr. He was under house arrest. His university and the Chinese government, which has put Dr. He under investigation, have been silent about his fate.

Dr. He now lives in a fourth-floor apartment at a university guesthouse, a hotel run by the school for visiting teachers, on the sprawling campus of the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen’s Nanshan District, where many of China’s best-known tech companies, like Tencent, have their offices.

In November, Dr. He stunned the global scientific community when he claimed to have created the world’s first babies from genetically edited embryos, implanted in a woman who gave birth to twin girls. While he did not provide proof that the gene-edited twins were born, he presented data that suggested he had done what he claimed. [Continue reading…]