Black Holes and the Sonic Song of the Universe
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
As Gordon Hempton points out, silence isn’t necessarily an absence of sound but a presence all its own. And, in much the same way, physicist Janna Levin says, space isn’t necessarily quiet either. Working at her lab at Columbia University, she projects that the universe creates an aural footprint that “will be music to our ears because it will be the quiet echo of that moment of our creation of our observable universe.” If we can only pick it up…
In this presentation at TED 2011, she plays her projections of the sounds the universe makes — black holes merging and falling into one another, the “white noise of the Big Bang. It’ll make you wonder about the biggest questions at the core of what it means to be a sentient being in this universe or the next.
On the Universality of Creativity in the Liberal Arts and in the Sciences
by S. James Gates
In this lecture for Westmont College’s series titled “Beyond Two Cultures: The Sciences as Liberal Arts,” string theorist Jim Gates offers his thoughts on the complementary natures of science and the liberal arts — and how the human mind formulates “systems of belief” in both disciplines.
This is the first time, in a formal structured way, I’ve been asked to speak before a group of academicians on this set of issues. It is a great honor to be invited to speak on behalf of one of the two “cultures” mentioned in the commentary by C.P. Snow (1905-1980) in New Statesman. It is also a great challenge to be so called upon to speak for an entire “culture.” Of necessity, my comments were created from the vantage point of thirty or so years of working embedded within the academic/scientific culture, and specifically within the field of physics. My views have been molded by this experience.
In preparing for this conversation, I have given much thought to how I, as a scientist, could make a valuable contribution to this tradition established at Westmont College. I believe this is best accomplished by spending most of my presentation describing the attributes of the culture of science as I have experienced them and reflected upon this experience. I claim no special abilities or qualifications to be making this presentation. I am most certainly and woefully uninformed on what I am sure must be a vast liberal arts literature on science and culture. I am, however, a theoretical physicist who has made an effort to think on such matters.
Shoah: A Table of Elements
by Dov Abramson, guest contributor
“The trade of chemist (fortified, in my case, by the experience of Auschwitz), teaches you to overcome, indeed to ignore, certain revulsions that are neither necessary nor congenital: matter is matter, neither noble nor vile, infinitely transformable, and its proximate origin is of no importance whatsoever. Nitrogen is nitrogen, it passes miraculously from the air into plants, from these into animals, and from animals into us; when its function in our body is exhausted, we eliminate it, but it still remains nitrogen, aseptic, innocent.”
—Primo Levi, The Periodic Table
The Holocaust represented a contradiction in perception: ordered, regimented evil and unrestrained, billowing pain. For decades, artists have sought to capture the ineffable destruction that befell the Jewish people.
“Shoah: A Table of Elements” describes the task of making order of the ungraspable. In so doing, it works to release some of the emotional charge of our most raw subjects, while evoking the more prominent associations of the Holocaust: the gases, the smoke, the debris.
“Shoah: A Table of Elements” is a meditation on how we commit to memory, how we use symbols, and how we represent that which we cannot behold.
Dov Abramson is founder and creative director of an art and design studio in Jerusalem, Israel. His work combines classic graphic design and branding with independent artistic work that deals with Jewish and Israeli identity. His projects have been featured in Zeek, Forward, Maariv, Haaretz, and the Chicago Tribune, and his art has been exhibited at The Jewish Museum in New York and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the On Being Tumblr. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
Symbols of Power: Adinkras and the Nature of Reality
by S. James Gates
Physicists have long sought to describe the universe in terms of equations. Now, James Gates explains how research on a class of geometric symbols known as adinkras could lead to fresh insights into the theory of supersymmetry — and perhaps even the very nature of reality.
Complex ideas, complex shapes Adinkras — geometric objects that encode mathematical relationships between supersymmetric particles — are named after symbols that represent wise sayings in West African culture. This adinkra is called “nea onnim no sua a, ohu,” which translates as “he who does not know can become knowledgeable through learning.”
In the land of theoretical physics, equations have always been king. Indeed, it would probably be fair to caricature theoretical physicists as members of a company called “Equations-R-Us”, since we tend to view new equations as markers of progress.
The modern era of equation prediction began with Maxwell in 1861, continued through the development of Einstein’s equations of general relativity in 1916, and reached its first peak in the 1920s with the Schrödinger and Dirac equations. Then a second, postwar surge saw the development of equations describing the strong force and the electroweak force, culminating in the creation of the Standard Model of particle physics in about 1973. The equations trend continues today, with the ongoing struggle to create comprehensive equations to describe superstring theory. This effort — which aims to incorporate the force of gravity into physical models in a way that the Standard Model does not — marks the extant boundary of a long tradition.
Yet equations are not the only story. To an extent, geometrical representations of physical theories have also been useful when correctly applied. The most famous incorrect geometrical representation in physics is probably Johannes Kepler’s model of planetary orbits; initially, Kepler believed the orbits could be described by five regular polygons successively embedded within each other, but he abandoned this proposition when more accurate data became available.
A less well known but much more successful example of geometry applied to physics is Murray Gell-Mann’s “eightfold way”, which is a means of organizing subatomic particles. This organization has an underlying explanation using triangles with quarks located at the vertices.
For the past five years, I and a group of my colleagues (including Charles Doran, Michael Faux, Tristan Hubsch, Kevin Iga, Greg Landweber and others) have been following the geometric-physics path pioneered by Kepler and Gell-Mann. The geometric objects that interest us are not triangles or octagons, but more complicated figures known as “adinkras”, a name Faux suggested.
The word “adinkra” is of West African etymology, and it originally referred to visual symbols created by the Akan people of Ghana and the Gyamen of Côte d’Ivoire to represent concepts or aphorisms. However, the mathematical adinkras we study are really only linked to those African symbols by name. Even so, it must be acknowledged that, like their forebears, mathematical adinkras also represent concepts that are difficult to express in words. Most intriguingly, they may even contain hints of something more profound — including the idea that our universe could be a computer simulation, as in the Matrix films.
Beautiful Minds: The Creative Brain Across Time and Cultures
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
There’s little doubt, most brain researchers agree, that genius looked much different thousands of years ago. With new tools and improving technologies, scientists are able to see traces of this evolution and observe how our brains are reshaping themselves. But, how are our ideas and commonly held assumptions about intelligence and the creative process being informed by these technologies?
In our most recent show, “Creativity and the Everyday Brain” with neuropsychologist Rex Jung, we featured this video from the World Science Festival. Here, uber-director Julie Taymor (a force of nature and creativity in her own right) and neuroscientists Rex Jung and Douglas Fields wrestle with the notions of genius over time and the possible effects of new technology on attention and creativity. It’s been one of our most popular pieces online, and I hope you’ll add your ideas to the mix.
A Heightened Potential for Creativity Even While Our Brains Slow Down
by Krista Tippett, host
Few features of humanity are more fascinating than creativity; and few fields right now are more fascinating than neuroscience. Rex Jung puts the two together.
He spends half of his time working with people living with brain illness or injury. In this role, he says, he’s something like an “existential neuropsychologist.” And what he learns there informs the other half of his working life, in the laboratory applying the newest technologies of brain imaging to the interplay between creativity, intelligence, and personality.
What I like about this interview is the humanity Rex Jung brings to his science. This is a quality of all the scientists we bring on this program, I suppose — whether it’s James Gates on supersymmetry, Jean Berko Gleason on linguistics, or Mario Livio on astrophysics. I’m fascinated by the richness of this exchange between humanity and science when you simply shine a light on it. Rex Jung, for example, got interested in studying brains as a volunteer for the Special Olympics. He came to love and revere the participants with supposedly “imperfect” brains.
Rex Jung first made a mark in the field of deciphering the brain networks involved in intelligence. But he was always aware that there is something more than intelligence involved in lives of beauty and integrity and vigor.
Now he’s working on the emerging frontier of the study of creativity — and how it is different from, as well as related to, intelligence. He and his colleagues have notably helped identify a phenomenon they’ve called “transient hypofrontality.” That’s a daunting name for an experience many of us will recognize. Simply put, Rex Jung says that intelligence works like a “superhighway,” with massive numbers of connections being made between the different parts of the brain with speed and directness. When we become more creative, our powerful, organizing frontal lobes downregulate a bit. The creative brain is a “meandering” brain. The superhighways give way to “side roads and dirt roads,” making possible the new and unexpected connections we associate with artistry, discovery, and humor.
One of the most helpful things about this conversation is the commonsense way Rex Jung describes the implications of his research. He says to take those famous stories we have of moments of great creative discovery — like Archimedes wallowing in his bath when he had his eureka moment — and be attentive to how we all prime our brains to be less directed, more creative. Some of us take a bath, some take a walk, some take a drink.
This cutting-edge research is a resounding affirmation of something we know we need in the 21st century but struggle to create: downtime. It’s a call to make this possible for our children too. Again, I think we all know this. For science to demonstrate it as a necessary precondition for creativity is bracing and helpful.
I appreciate the way this research validates the creativity of the everyday: of humor, of relationships, of social as well as personal, scientific, or artistic innovation. Rex Jung is also part of an emerging discipline called “positive neuroscience” — studying what the brain does well and, by implication I think, how what we are learning about our brains can be of benefit to our common life. He even believes that while there is loss in an aging brain — the phase many of our baby boomer brains have now entered — there is also a potential for heightened creativity in that very slowing down.
There are intriguing echoes between this research and neuroscientist Richard Davidson’s discoveries at the University of Wisconsin about how it is possible through behaviors — and with practice — to keep changing our brains across the lifespan. After listening to Rex Jung, I’ve become more aware of how I sometimes get myself into agonizing moments, when I need to be creative (on deadline, of course) but haven’t made the space for my frontal lobes to downregulate and let it happen.
I like feeling more in touch with my frontal lobes. I also like the way Rex Jung questions whether there is a necessary connection between creativity and difficult personalities (e.g. Steve Jobs). From my vantage point, I also feel we may be on the cusp of realizing new creative potentials in ourselves — again, in the everyday. I’ll let my brain meander here awhile to consider that. Talk about having your cake and eating it too; I get to delight in the purposefulness of meandering.
Brain Researcher Rex Jung: A Twitterscript
by Susan Leem, associate producer
Neuropsychologist Rex Jung is asking important questions about the origin and purpose of human creativity. He’s using the latest laboratory techniques to peek inside our mental process with brain imaging. What he has found along the way “unsettles some old assumptions” about intelligence, creativity, personality, and even how we perceive ourselves as aging creatures.
On February 23rd, we live-tweeted highlights of his interview with Krista Tippett and have aggregated them below for those who weren’t able to follow along. Follow us next time at @BeingTweets.
A Reprieve from Myself: What’s Revealed in a View
by Sarah J. Hart, guest contributor
My last two years in Brooklyn I felt fortunate to have the view I did. My windows faced east, and, although the blank wall of another building loomed large directly in front, to the right grew a luscious tree and above was an unobstructed view of sky. I often woke at dawn and would stand on the fire escape and soak in the morning, while it still felt clear and clean.
Over the five years I lived in “the city” I learned to train my eyes away from a lot of what was around me: trash exploded from vandalized garbage bags; the grey on brown on dingy grey of sidewalk, street, and dirty buildings; tawdry advertisements; glaring lights. Instead I’d glue my gaze on any scrap of nature available: a leaf splattered on the curb; weeds flourishing in an empty lot; wheeling pigeons, making the sky sparkle with their sunlit wings. By the end of my five years in NYC I felt I struggled endlessly to find enough beauty that I might endure the ugly. “This is absurd,” I thought. “Clearly the city is the wrong environment for me.”
In January of this year I had the opportunity to move out and, with great relief, I did.
Now I live in the woods. There are no other houses in sight. I am on 40 acres, embraced in a bear hug of state land. When I look out my window, I see only beauty: layers of hemlock, bright clusters of beech leaves, spindly maples with slender branches that shatter the sky.
Whether it’s a sun-soaked day that impels me to shut my computer and go out for a walk (or at least to do something useful, like fill the wood box) or an overcast one with a moody sky and pinches of sleet, I see that there is always a perfect harmony in the colors and textures around me. In the woods I am humbled — in that way that’s also elating — with the reminder of all the living and dying and churning forth of ephemeral beauty that is happening around me all the time, whether I am paying attention or not.
Living in such an environment induces a certain shrinking down to size, and a correlating peace with one’s place in this world. Red squirrels and red maples do not seem to fret over the “good enough-ness” of their lives, and it starts to feel a bit out of line to do so myself. I see their perfection — the kind that is inherent rather than measurable — and find it easier to see that same quality in myself as well, ongoing toils notwithstanding.
But of course, I could have felt this in the city. Strictly speaking, the city is no less a natural environment than the one up here. It too evolved from the tumble of cause and effect of living things trying to survive. It is certainly no less vibrant an ecosystem. True, in an urban landscape the parameters of opportunity and constraint are mostly man-made, but they yield an abundance of variety equivalent to that in a woodland environment. There’s differentiation, specialization, and the endless burgeoning of micro-complexity within the larger landscape.
Indeed, there was a time when the city inspired in me similar feelings as the woods do now. I moved there at a time in my life of greedy growth, too hungry for the tidy flower box of a town I lived in. New York City had the appeal of wilderness — an expanse of unknown, potential, and gritty reality.
To love the city is to feel a great compassion for the swarms of other people around you. All those lives, all that urgent self preservation, the palpable vulnerability and ferocity. The beauty of it can break your heart.
“A man never discloses his own character so clearly as when he describes that of another,” an insightful person is said to have said. This observation is true. And it also applies to our descriptions of the world around us. What we see in the landscape outside the window is, truly, a window onto the landscape inside.
New York City lost its beauty not because it changed (if anything it has become thrillingly greener in the years since I moved there, what with the urban agriculture movement, the roof top farms, and so on) but because I lost my ability to see it. My dissatisfaction with the city increased in direct correlation with my dissatisfaction with my life and dissatisfaction with myself for failing to improve that life. The fewer hopes and ambitions I managed to fulfill, the fewer opportunities the city seemed to provide for peace, contentment, and happiness. I condemned it as a place of harsh judgment and didn’t notice that I was the harshest judge.
I moved to the woods to gain a reprieve from the city, but what I really gained is a reprieve from myself. Of course, the change of view outside my window is very real, and one I appreciate intensely, but I know the significant change is actually in my point of view. Bickering at the corner deli used to make me groan, but squabbles of the same order at the birdfeeder make me giggle. I wince at lurid colors in plastic, but delight in the same hues when discovered in lichen. Although I’m a bit of an oddity in the small town I now call home, I feel thoroughly comfortable, as I never managed to feel when in the midst of thousands of peers.
I know there have been times in my life when I could not have appreciated this environment as I do now. And who knows, perhaps I’ll be ill content again someday. But I hope I do not forget that beauty is not a quality to seek, only to see.
Sarah Jean Heart is a writer, editor, and reporter living in Boonville, New York. You can read more of her writing and view more of her photography at The Perspective Project.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication for the On Being Blog. Submit your entry and contribute a deeper understanding of the world around us.
Imagination Is More Important Than Knowledge
by Krista Tippett, host
I interviewed James Gates once before, a few years ago, when we were creating our show on Einstein’s ethics. We talked then about Einstein’s little-remembered passion for racial equality. James Gates spent part of his childhood in segregated schools — experiences he does not take for granted now that he is a preeminent, African-American physicist. But what I was so taken by in that conversation years ago was how he explained Einstein’s social activism in terms of the values and virtues of scientific pursuit. He spoke of empathy as a potential byproduct of the process of discovery. A scientist’s “What if…” questions can evolve into human “What if…” questions.
James Gates’ capacity to share both from his humanity and his life in science strikes me again, and comes through even more forcefully during our more recent conversation in “Uncovering the Codes for Reality.” This time, I spoke with him about his particular passions. He is a string theorist, with a special emphasis on supersymmetry — a quality in the universe which, if demonstrated, might help support string theory as a way to reconcile the greatest puzzle modern physics has tried to solve since Einstein. Simply put, the universe seems to follow different rules at the highest and the smallest levels of reality. String theory imagines that deeper than atoms, deeper than electrons, behind quarks, all of reality is brought into being by filaments of energy. These “strings” might span the whole of reality, and possibly explain why gravity behaves so differently from varying vantage points. Some leading string theorists posit that there are at least eleven dimensions — far more than the three or four dimensions we are equipped to experience.
That is about how far I comprehend the idea behind string theory. The lovely thing about a conversation with James Gates is that my incomprehension does not matter. He gives me much to chew on, and be enriched by.
For starters, he is just the latest voice — others include the astrophysicist Mario Livio, and the astronomers Guy Consolmagno and George Coyne — to let me in to the secrets and power of science’s language of mathematics. He calls mathematics a kind of sixth sense — an organ of “extrasensory perception” — for scientists. By way of mathematics, scientists perceived and described the atom years before microscopes sophisticated enough to view them could be invented. Now, with mathematics, he and his colleagues are tracing clues and cosmic hints that may never be provable with our five senses — but that may shift our very sense of the nature of reality.
One of the things James Gates and some of his colleagues have “seen,” for example, are underlying codes embedded in the cosmos — error-correcting codes, like those that drive computer programs. (Full disclosure: he’s a fan of The Matrix — so am I — and we hear a little bit of that iconic movie in our one-hour podcast.) This is just one of many observations he makes that raises questions, he says, that physics alone can neither answer nor probe.
He is also working on an interesting frontier of expanding science’s own imagination about mathematical equations in describing reality. He and his colleagues have recently employed something called adinkras, visual symbols that may be able to unlock truths that equations alone cannot capture, just as there are truths that only poetry can convey.
There’s also a lot of fodder for one of my fascinations with the realm of science — the creative, playful, even spiritual act of naming things, especially in physics: beauty quarks and anti-beauty quarks, sizzling black holes, and superstrings, for example. The term adinkras, which comes from West Africa tradition and connotes pictures having hidden meaning, carries on this tradition.
James Gates’ own delight is infectious and illuminating, as much when he is letting us in on mysteries of the cosmos as when he shares the human lessons of his life in science. I’ll leave you with this, for example, as an enticement. When I asked him what he thought of Einstein’s statement that “imagination is more important than knowledge,” he said he had puzzled over this for many years:
“For a long time in my life, imagination was the world of play. It was reading about astronauts, and monsters, and traveling in galaxies, all of that kind of stuff, invaders from outer space on earth. That was all in the world of the imagination. On the other hand, reality is all about us. And it’s constraining, and it can be painful. But the knowledge we gain is critical for our species to survive.
So how could it be that play is more important than knowledge? It took me years to figure out an answer. And the answer turns out [to be] rather strange… Imagination is more important than knowledge because imagination turns out to be the vehicle by which we increase knowledge. And so, if you don’t have imagination, you’re not going to get more knowledgeable.”
String Theorist S. James Gates: A Twitterscript
by Susan Leem, associate producer
S. James Gates is known for pioneering supersymmetry, a theory that could “explain some of the greatest mysteries of the universe, such as how elementary particles got their mass.” There’s actually a symmetry between these two fundamental entities that compose the universe, invisible partners with names like selectrons (partner of electrons) and photinos (partner of photons). Gates shares with us a scientist’s rich, connected way of looking at the universe, “where we become essential to the universe.”
We live-tweeted highlights of this 90-minute conversation and have aggregated them below for those who weren’t able to follow along. Look for our show with him in the coming weeks, and follow us next time at @BeingTweets.
- “My understanding of the word ‘space’ is so different than my understanding of space at age 4 or age 8.” -Professor James Gates 1:10 PM, 25 Jan
- “I ended up at MIT which itself was a dream…a school where you studied the good stuff.” -Professor James Gates 1:14 PM, 25 Jan
- “It’s about balance…we humans, it seems like we’re coded to look for symmetry.” - Professor James Gates 1:19 PM, 25 Jan
- “It shows up in our art and music, but if the world were perfectly symmetrical we could not exist.” -Professor James Gates 1:25 PM, 25 Jan
- “The Higgs particle we believe is responsible for the creation of mass for everything else in the universe.” -James Gates 1:26 PM, 25 Jan
- “With string theory we have a view of the universe where we become essential to the universe.” -Professor James Gates 1:30 PM, 25 Jan
- “We become part and parcel of what our universe is in a way I’ve never seen done in science before.” -Professor James Gates 1:31 PM, 25 Jan
- “In many cultures the act of naming is regarded as a very powerful thing.” –Professor James Gates 1:33 PM, 25 Jan
- “If science conjures, it’s when we get a clear picture of something we didn’t know and give it a name.” -Professor James Gates 1:35 PM, 25 Jan
- “Math is an extrasensory organ for those who learn to use it that way.” -Professor James Gates 1:36 PM, 25 Jan
- “I’m a hidden-dimensional refusenik.” -Professor James Gates 1:38 PM, 25 Jan
- “It’s almost like the equations are trying to tell you a story.” -Professor James Gates 1:40 PM, 25 Jan
- “When you do the calculations, it seems there’s an imperative to follow the path.” -Professor James Gates 1:41 PM, 25 Jan
- “We’re not trying to find solutions, we’re looking at the structures of the equations…like DNA.” -Professor James Gates 1:47 PM, 25 Jan
- “Adinkras have existed in West African cultures for a very long time. They are symbols that have hidden meaning.” -James Gates 1:54 PM, 25 Jan
- An Adinkra: “He who does not know can become knowing by education.”
-Professor James Gates 1:56 PM, 25 Jan
- “A large fraction of the fundamental science done at this point has been inward-looking.” -Professor James Gates 2:01 PM, 25 Jan
- “Science in my experience does not permit us the illusion of certainty.” -Professor S. James Gates 2:10 PM, 25 Jan
- “We are forced by the structure of science to recognize human fallibility, human limits.” -Professor S. James Gates 2:12 PM, 25 Jan
- “By embracing our limits, by embracing our fallibility we become more knowledgeable.” -Professor and physicist S. James Gates 2:14 PM, 25 Jan
Photo of S. James Gates by John Consoli/University of Maryland