Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Quantum Foam

I forgot this! The key notion that allowed these complexity theory ideas to generate correlates to Buddhist, Jewish, Hindu (and, i suspect, other) metaphysics is the idea of the Quantum Foam, that at the very smallest scales of existence, the smallest elements of the universe - much, much, much, MUCH smaller than atoms - come and go out of existence.

Brian Greene's book, The Elegant Universe, describes this really beautifully. The TV version of the book doesn't use the phrase, but speaks of the violent "quantum jitters" as these smallest particles (or strings, according to String Theory) come and go.

This 3 hour miniseries can be watched here. The jitters of space-time are described in the second episode, though if you've no background in physics I would suggest watching the show from the beginning.

The book is wonderful, but not for the science averse. The TV show should have been that wonderful, if not more so! But I'm afraid Greene is just a bit too much like an overly enthusiastic puppy and it sort of grates a bit... The show, however, is on the short side... ;-)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Zen Science for Winter Ango 2010

The Buddha cautioned against taking any teaching on faith, encouraging his students to test and verify all teachings against their own experience. Likewise, “modern scientific method” dictates that the world be explored through a repetitive cycle of testing of hypotheses through experimentation, data collection, analysis, and hypothesis revision. If experiments can’t consistently be reproduced, then the data is not believed and the hypothesis revised. Nothing on faith.

These approaches have each produced extensive descriptions of the nature and structure of existence through use of the mind. Contemplative practice does so by turning the mind inward, scientific method largely by exploring outward.

It has been my experience that these approaches are not only complementary, but in fact lead to the same descriptions of reality. Whether we discuss Buddhist metaphysics or Hindu or Jewish mysticisms (the systems of metaphysical thought with which I’m to some extent familiar), the science arrives at the same insights as contemplative practice.

For Buddhism, these insights include the interrelated truths of impermanence, interdependence, emptiness of inherent existence and karmic law (i.e. that all effects arise from prior causes and these effects then become the causes for future effects).

For me, the powerful aspect of my experience has been that the conceptual insights of contemporary science have literally become koans, thereby leading me increasingly to experience the concepts rather than simply know them.

It is this shift from knowledge to experience that I hope to share with you over the course of Winter Ango 2010, culminating in visits to the Museum of Natural History during Urban Sesshin, in March.

While advance preparation for Urban Sesshin is certainly not necessary, I wanted to offer readings, viewings and exercises for those who wish to begin working now. These recommendations represent opportunities that I’ve stumbled upon for painlessly learning what contemporary science says about the nature of reality – how it is organized and how it functions – so that we can hold those facts within our Practice Minds and, hopefully, broaden our experience of the world and our understanding of the nature of the Self.

If any of you have further suggestions from your own experiences, by all means please recommend them as comments to these blog entries below and I’ll add them to the entries themselves.

And if you have interesting questions or insights from swimming in this knowledge by all means add your comments and perhaps a community-wide conversation will emerge, too!


Introductory Concepts (good for science-interested lay people to hard core nerds):
From the Bottom Up by me, a short piece for a general audience published in Tricycle, 2006.

These two books are easy to find and order on line and are both quite clearly written - very good for lay people with only basic understandings of science:
“Complexity: Life at the Edge of Chaos” by Richard Lewin
(This one opens and focuses alot on sociology/anthropology type studies so if those are of interest...)
“Emergence” by Stephen Johnson
(This one has the fullest, niftiest explanation of ant colonies, my fave example, but eventually winds up focusing on the World Wide Web - not such a keen point of interest for me, but others may find it fascinating)

For New Yorkers and those who love cities:
"The Death and Life of Great American Cities" by Jane Jacobs
Before there were words and concepts for complexity theory, she intuited all of it by looking closely at the nature of cities, particularly New York. A beautiful classic.

For hardcore science geeks:
"The Elegant Universe" by Brian Greene
(Pulitzer Prize! Quantum theory and string theory as simply and clearly written as your ever likely to find it - but it ain't for those who are shy about science)
"The 30 Years That Shook Physics" by George Gamow
(Written decades ago, this is my favorite book on quantum theory - the history of its development, the wacky physicists involved, and the math. The math, in particular, makes this very non-trivial reading. Only brave it if you have a significant background in mathematics and if your heart takes wing when someone mentions the Pauli Exclusion Principle)

How our bodies organize themselves (for science nerds, mildy hardcore):
"Cell doctrine: Now you see it, now you don't" also by me:
"Modern biology and medicine see the cell as the fundamental building block of living organisms, but this concept breaks down at different perspectives and scales." This is piece is very short, one page.

On "Post-Modern Biology", also by me.

For those who prefer to listen than to read, here's a podcast version of this stuff from Upaya's Zen Brain retreat in 2008. I'm told it works even without the accompanying powerpoint.

I will be giving a version of this talk on February 17 at Om Yoga Center, click here for info:


Planet Earth” from the BBC (Particularly Disc 4, "Ocean Deep" to see the "bait ball" moments - incredible examples of self organization)

"How the Earth Was Made" from the History Channel

The Ascent of Man” from the BBC (particularly episode 1, origin of life and of our oxygen rich atmosphere with the emergence of the stromatolites - very cool)

The Inner Life of the Cell (animation - amazing)


These are exercises you can play with if you find yourself in the mood and/or in the right setting, the kind of games I play with myself to explode the boundaries of the narrow world as my senses present it. Basically, I’m just using the findings of science (the earth goes around the sun, how the moon formed, evolutionary biology, etc) to experience the world as it actually is, not simply as I perceive it. In such ways I’ve found I can extend my sense of my physical nature beyond my usually experienced boundaries, outward in space and outward in time.

Some Exercises:

1. Stand at the seashore and listen to the waves. Consider that these waves were crashing on the beach, making these sounds, when humans first organized into civilizations 10,000 years ago, when humans first began to hunt and gather on the plains of Africa, before humanoids existed, indeed, through the existence of all of life and long before that even. 3.8 billion years. Consider how vast is time.

2. At sunset look toward where the sun has just set, there over the horizon and then consider how the ground upon which you stand is this spherical planet Earth which circles the sun. Think about the sun over there and the Earth over here and picture the solar system in your mind.

Look up: Do you see the moon? Picture the sun over there, the Earth here, circling the sun, the moon there, circling the Earth. During the next few months, if you're facing south look up and find the brightest "star" you can see - it will have a faint orange tinge. That's no star. That's Mars.

Experience standing in the solar system, not as a concept of balls and circles in a picture of your mind's eye, but right here, right now. Don’t conceptualize the solar system, experience the solar system.

To get updated information about what's in the sky each week, go here: http://www.skyandtelescope.com/observing/ataglance/

3. Stand at a busy intersection of Manhattan and look around you. Look at all the New Yorkers: people and cars and buses streaming this way and that. Know that this city was here 120 years ago, and people streamed about in the same way then, but none of the people who considered themselves to be New Yorkers then are alive today. Yet the city remains and is, clearly, still New York City.

And just as all those people have died while the city continues, all the people you see today, on this corner, including yourself, will also die, one by one, completely disappearing by 120 years from now.

Yet the city will remain and those New Yorkers of the future will feel themselves to be as much “the City” as you feel yourself to be now. What is the city? What are you as part of the city? Contemplate the passing of time beyond the scale of your own life.

4. Look at the moon. If you could have stood on the Earth 4 billion years ago after a planetoid hit the Earth, throwing rock and dust into orbit, you would have seen a ring, like those of Saturn. If you could have stood there watching it as millions and millions of years pass, you would have seen them gradually pulling together into a rocky cluster that, bit by bit, would have coalesced into our perfectly spherical moon.

Stand there and think about how the moon as a ring could have been experienced, billions of years ago, as directly and concretely as you experience that sphere today. Consider the dynamic nature of the universe and how coddled and protected we’ve been in our tiny window of a few hundred thousand years of humanoid existence.

More details about formation of the moon here: http://www.psi.edu/projects/moon/moon.html

5. Watch a docudrama (I enjoyed “John Adams”, for example, in this way) and consider how the people of past generations experienced themselves as though they were the leading edge of the long story of history that preceded them, filled with uncertainty about what would come, experiencing the world as unfolding “then and there” as you experience it unfolding right here and now.

We now consider them “history”, the middle of a story that has led to you. Consider how someone 100 years from now, viewing a film of you, will think of you as “the middle” of her or his own stories. What is it like being the middle of someone else’s story, rather than the unfolding, leading edge of your own?