Blog

BOOK REVIEW: The Accidental Universe

October 11, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

In The Accidental Universe; The World You Thought You Knew, Alan Lightman separates out seven different types of universe. He dedicates each chapter to way of interpreting the universe including things like: accidental, temporary, spiritual and symmetrical. Lightman straddles both the sciences and the humanities, and this book is a sort of creative non-fiction. He explores complex science topics and elaborates his points with examples from both disciplines.

In these chapters, he explores what it means to be a part of a universe, our universe. He understands the complexity of visualizing such a diverse and unknowable thing, while also realizing that whether or not we visualize the greatness, we are a part of it. He asks how one might see a self interacting with and participating in the universe. In the chapter titled “The Gargantuan Universe,” Lightman explores the literal size of the universe. As is his style, he begins with an anecdote of sailing a small boat out to sea with nothing in sight. This image draws us into a recognizable experience. From there, he explores the very vast dimensions of the universe. He notes that while Isaac Newton was not the first scientist to attempt to quantify the heavens, he was the first with any measurable accuracy. Lightman writes:


“(Only someone as accomplished as Newton could have been the first to perform such a calculation and have it go almost unnoticed among his other achievements.) If one assumes that the stars are similar objects to our sun, equal in intrinsic luminosity, Newton asked, how far away would our sun have to be in order to appear as faint as nearby stars? Writing his computation in a spidery script, with a quill dipped in the ink of oak galls, Newton correctly concluded that the nearest stars are about one hundred thousand times the distance from Earth to the sun, or roughly ten trillion miles away. Newton’s calculation is contained in a short section of his Principia, titled simply ‘On the Distance of the Stars.’

“Newton’s estimate of the distance to nearby stars was larger than any distance imagined before in human history. Even today, nothing in our experience allows us to relate to it. The fastest most of us has traveled is about five hundred miles per hour, the speed of a jet airplane. If we set out for the nearest star beyond our solar system at that speed, it would take about five million years to reach our destination. If we traveled in the fastest rocket ship ever manufactured on Earth, the trip would take one hundred thousand years, at least a thousand human life spans.”

I like the way his text moves between ancient texts, lived experience, and data. He writes in an inviting and conversational tone which is easy to follow. But more importantly, he draws upon excellent resources, such as Newton.

Perhaps my favorite chapter of his book is called “The Symmetrical Universe.” This fascinating section wonders at nature’s ability for perfect symmetry. Why are planets round and why do we appreciate their size and shape? In another example, he moves into a discussion of the bee’s hive. He writes:


“Each cell of a honeycomb is a nearly perfect hexagon, a space with six identical and equally spaced walls. Isn’t that surprising? Wouldn’t it be more plausible to find cells of all kinds of shapes and sizes, fitted together in a haphazard manner? It is a mathematical truth that there are only three geometrical figures with equal sides that can fit together on a flat surface without leaving gaps: equilateral triangles, squares, and hexagons. Any gaps between cells would be wasted space. Gaps would defeat the principle of economy. Now you might ask why the sides of a cell in a beehive need to be equal in length. It is possible that each cell could have a random shape and unequal sides and the next cell then be custom made to fit into that cell, without gaps. And so on, one cell after another, each one fit to the one before it. But this method of constructing a honeycomb would require that the worker bees work sequentially, one at a time, first making one cell, then fitting the next cell to that, and so on. This procedure would be a waste of time for the bees. Each insect would have to wait in line for the guy in front to finish his cell. If you’ve ever seen bees building a beehive...they don’t wait for one another. They work simultaneously. So the bees need to have a game plan in advance, knowing that all the cells will fit together automatically. Only equilateral triangles, squares and hexagons will do.


“But why hexagons? Here unfolds another fascinating story. More than two thousand years ago, in 36 BC, the Roman scholar Marcus Terentius Varro conjectured that the hexagonal grid is the unique geometrical shape that divides a surface into equal cells with the smallest total perimeter. And the smallest total perimeter, or smallest total length of sides, means the smallest amount of wax needed by the bees to construct their honeycomb. For every ounce of wax, a bee must consume about eight ounces of honey. That’s a lot of work, requiring thousands of visits to thousands of flowers and much flapping of wings. The hexagon minimizes the effort and expense of energy. But Varro had made only a conjecture. Astoundingly, Varro’s conjecture, known by mathematicians as the Honeycomb Conjecture, was proven only recently, in 1999, by the American mathematician Thomas Hales. The bees knew it was true all along.”

This passage highlights my favorite things about this text: he unfolds a variety of outside sources and allusions in order to illuminate a natural principle. It is almost like watching a flower open, where each petal adds a new source or dimension to the original image.

Even more interesting than the perfection of nature or its desire for symmetry, is man’s interaction with nature. Lightman links symmetry to the idea of beauty, but then wonders why man often makes asymmetrical art. He concludes:


“In the end, it is easier to explain why bees construct honeycombs shaped like perfect hexagons than why human beings place identical towers on the sides of the Taj Mahal…. The first is a result of economy and mathematics, the second of psychology and aesthetics.”


The book ends with a chapter titled “The Disembodied Universe.” In it, Lightman expresses remorse for the increasing role that technology plays in the human life. Lightman envisions the future human as part android, or at the very least, inseparable from technology. I believe that, while he is grateful for advances in health and data, etc. as a result of technology, he struggles with this plugged-in human because they are oblivious to nature around them. Up to this point, humans have learned the most by observing nature and clearly we have more to learn. His book is a kind of ode to science in which he also addresses faith, but more broadly, he wonders about this approaching line of human and technology.

The Accidental Universe walks through ways of seeing the universe that are both instructive and beautiful. Time spent pondering this great vast place in which we live can only deepen our humanity.

To leave a comment, click on the title of this post and scroll down.

Bergson and Our Quarterly Discussion

July 19, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

In Creative Evolution, Henri Bergson uses natural science as the basis for his arguments towards a new understanding of reality. This July, a group of us discussed two sections from Creative Evolution in order to better understand Bergson’s philosophical ideas. In this work, Bergson explains that two popular views of reality cannot fully account for the way that the world presents itself. He uses examples such as the formation of an eye to underscore the ways in which mechanism and finalism fall short. Bergson opposes the idea that the eye was constructed piece by piece like a machine (the mechanist theory). He also disagrees with the idea that the human eye evolved with an end goal in mind (like 20/20 vision, for example), which is the view of finalists. To illustrate these arguments, he writes:

“For us, the whole of an organized machine may, strictly speaking, represent the whole of the organizing work (this is, however, only approximately true), yet the parts of the machine do not correspond to parts of the work, because the materiality of this machine does not represent a sum of means employed, but a sum of obstacles avoided: it is a negation rather than a positive reality. So, as we have shown in a former study, vision is a power which should attain by right an infinity of things inaccessible to our eyes. But such a vision would not be continued into action; it might suit a phantom, but not a living being. The vision of a living being is an effective vision, limited to objects on which the being can act: it is a vision that is canalized, and the visual apparatus simply symbolizes the work of canalizing. Therefore the creation of the visual apparatus is no more explained by the assembling of its anatomic elements than the digging of a canal could be explained by the heaping up of the earth which might have formed its banks. A mechanistic theory would maintain that the earth had been brought cart-load by cart-load; finalism would add that it had not been dumped down at random, that the carters had followed a plan. But both theories would be mistaken, for the canal has been made in another way” (93-94).

His next example introduces Bergson’s new theory (one which he would discuss for the rest of his life). He talks about the negative as defining reality, rather than the positive. Instead of positively adding elements in the way that we build a car, for example, Bergson advocates that duration and free will simultaneously influences evolution. Therefore, he offers an example of a hand moving through iron filings as a demonstration of duration and free will. The path of the hand through the filings is a matter of choice against or in its environment. He continues:

“With greater precision, we may compare the process by which nature constructs an eye to the simple act by which we raise the hand. But we supposed at first that the hand met with no resistance. Let us now imagine that, instead of moving in air, the hand has to pass through iron filings which are compressed and offer resistance to it in proportion as it goes forward. At a certain moment the hand will have exhausted its effort, and, at this very moment, the filings will be massed and coördinated in a certain definite form, to wit, that of the hand that is stopped and of a part of the arm. Now, suppose that the hand and arm are invisible. Lookers-on will seek the reason of the arrangement in the filings themselves and in forces within the mass. Some will account for the position of each filing by the action exerted upon it by the neighboring filings: these are the mechanists. Others will prefer to think that a plan of the whole has presided over the detail of these elementary actions: they are the finalists. But the truth is that there has been merely one indivisible act, that of the hand passing through the filings: the inexhaustible detail of the movement of the grains, as well as the order of their final arrangement, expresses negatively, in a way, this undivided movement, being the unitary form of a resistance, and not a synthesis of positive elementary actions. For this reason, if the arrangement of the grains is termed an "effect" and the movement of the hand a "cause," it may indeed be said that the whole of the effect is explained by the whole of the cause, but to parts of the cause parts of the effect will in no wise correspond. In other words, neither mechanism nor finalism will here be in place, and we must resort to an explanation of a different kind. Now, in the hypothesis we propose, the relation of vision to the visual apparatus would be very nearly that of the hand to the iron filings that follow, canalize and limit its motion” (94-95).

Bergson explains the resulting path as a kind of “equilibrium,” a circumstance as a result of the environment, the need, the organ, etc. He claims that beings evolve, but not according to any design. While I believe that Bergson asks us to think of this third idea in tandem with mechanism and finalism, in that they are complementary ideas aimed at better understanding reality, he does seem to say that his theory is the more developed. During our discussion, someone noted that while his theory may be more holistic, it still does not clearly address the initial impetus. Using evolution as the starting point for his theory, Bergson defines the original impetus as the “passing from one generation of germs to the following generation of germs through the developed organisms which bridge the interval between the generations” (88). He does not directly address the idea of prime movers, or from where original impetus stems.

In this short section, Bergson devotes much time to the complexity of the eye, which he claims shows a specificity of purpose. It is this simple purpose which has created the path for the evolution of the eye. In other words, vision becomes a standalone purpose which drives the creation of the eye. The eye develops freely (without end goal) because the environment places demands upon it. That beings have sight seems to be a commonality among most species. Freedom of choice, then, allows the eye to develop to environmental demands in a way that allows hawks to see at a distance and humans to read texts. He also notes that these things are always in motion, always in duration, and that the current development is in no way the final development.

Published in 1911, Creative Evolution is an intriguing entrance into Bergson’s writings. His subsequent writings, such as The Creative Mind, develop many of the ideas introduced in this text and offer excellent discussions. Due to the fact that Bergson is also responding to philosophical questions which have existed for thousands of years, we must look more closely at the translators’ language. Many of his works were not translated until the 1980s and 1990s, which raises the question of translation accuracy in a field which requires such specificity.

Many thanks to those who were able to participate in Harrison Middleton University’s July Quarterly Discussion. As always, I gain great benefit from hearing the ideas of others!

To leave a comment, click on the title of this post and scroll down.

The Book of Seeds

April 26, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Spring is upon us. Just as blossoms begin to show their strength, color, and vibrancy, so too the weather changes and begins to warm. All of the seasonal changes often add up to a change in attitude as well. Flowers, I believe, bring out the best of human nature, fostering images of beauty, strength, love, hope, and imagination. But where does the beauty begin? How does the flower take root and gain enough energy to grow their blooms?

Paul Smith begins his recent book The Book of Seeds; A Life-size Guide to Six Hundred Species from Around the World (2018) with the following lines:

“Seeds are amazing. They can travel thousands of miles across oceans and continents, and can live for hundreds of years. A seed no bigger than a pinhead can grow into the tallest living organism on the planet. The smallest seed can barely be seen with the naked eye; the largest is the size of a human head. Over a period of more than 300 million years, seeds have evolved into every size, shape, and color imaginable” (6).

All of that seems amazing when one considers how little we discuss seeds in comparison to how much time is spent on animals, even extinct animals such as dinosaurs. Often we fail to notice the same awe-inspiring capabilities from plants of the same time period – ones to which we still have access! Paul Smith continues:

“Plant life on land evolved a staggering 600 million years ago, with the ancestors of many of these early plants still extant today: the mosses, clubmosses, horsetails, and ferns. These species don’t produce flowers or seeds; instead, they reproduce through spores. It was not until approximately 240 million years later that the first primitive seed-bearing plants appeared, an adaptation that conferred numerous advantages for survival, including the capacity for sexual reproduction in the absence of water, the ability to disperse over long distances, and the adaptability to survive in a dormant state for long periods of time until the right conditions arose. Today, the vast majority of plant species (more than 80 percent) are found in the tropics, but even places as inhospitable as Antarctica and the Sahara Desert support seed-bearing plant species” (7).

Seeds have adapted many tricks to optimize their environments. For example, some seeds remain dormant for long periods of time waiting until the conditions are ripe for life. Smith explains that some seeds, particularly those in warm, wet environments, do not remain dormant. Instead of storing energy, they choose to sprout quickly and gain access to the immediate environmental benefits. Other seeds, like the coconut, float which enables them to travel greater distances to access better growing conditions. Many seeds may remain dormant for years. One of the greatest examples of this was found in the 1960s during an excavation at King Herod’s palace in Israel. A 2,000 year old date palm seed was found among the ruins and when planted, it grew normally.

A variety of seeds ready for spring planting. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

A variety of seeds ready for spring planting. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

More impressive than their amazing adaptations, however, is the important part that seeds play in determining human existence. Without plants that can be planted and cultivated as a food source, humans would have to remain hunter gatherers. Seeds, especially the ones that can be saved and transported, allow humans to move to a new place, or stay in one place. The ability to grow foods impacts social connectivity and health. Smith writes, “The adaptive leap that humans made from collecting grains and seeds to planting and harvesting them seems to have occurred in parallel in several different places” (18). This astounding idea – that multiple communities who did not know of each others’ existence arrived at cultivation simultaneously indicates something important about the nature of humans and of our interaction with the planet. Smith notes that around 9500 BCE Wheat, Barley, Pea, and Lentil “were domesticated in the Fertile Crescent – what is now Iran and Iraq” (18). From there, he continues:

“At around the same time, Rice was first cultivated in China, followed by Soybean. In the Andes, the Potato was domesticated around 8000 BCE, together with beans. In New Guinea, Sugarcane and the Yam appear in the archeological record about 7000 BCE. In Africa, Sorghum was domesticated in about 5000 BCE, and in Central America, Maize was first cultivated around 4000 BCE. Domestication of livestock occurred over a similar period of time. The transformation of wild plants into crops through artificial selection and breeding enabled human communities to establish themselves in villages, towns, and cities, and to flourish” (19).

While the history of seeds is astoundingly impressive (and seeds themselves are as diverse as imaginable), more importantly, however, may be the future of plants. Smith claims that plant diversity is of utmost importance since the majority of life on earth depends upon plants. He notes that we have studied relatively few, however. He claims that plants seem nondescript, but they have important roles in our daily lives. Smith ends his introduction with a quote by Aldo Leopold which underscores the point that humans would better serve themselves and the earth by adding a curious intelligence into their dealings with plants. He quotes, “If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering” (27).

I highly suggest thumbing through this massive collection of seeds. The diversity and colorful arrays are astounding. It will leave you with yet another reminder of the world’s vast richness.

To leave a comment, click on the title of this post and scroll down.

Hippocrates on Education

April 19, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

After reading bits and pieces of Hippocrates’s writings, I am impressed by the amount of attention he pays to education. Though often called the “Father of Medicine,” Hippocrates also devoted a lot of time to understanding how people gain knowledge. In “The Book of Prognostics,” Hippocrates focuses on forming a patient prognosis, rather than a diagnosis or treatment of symptoms. Many diagnoses of his day included the idea that gods were involved in health. Instead, he sought to remove superstition from the field of medicine and turn it into a legitimate profession. In doing so, he not only revolutionized medicine, but the idea of how humans can learn from their environment. In other words, he revolutionized education itself.

In the “Book of Prognostics,” Hippocrates lists a number of maladies by symptom. Without naming any specific diseases, he dispels two important myths. First, he denies that any disease is sent by supernatural forces. Rather, he explains that diseases exist naturally and the physical human body participates in nature. This is part of his reason for avoiding common disease names, which often referenced deities or the supernatural. Second, he bases part of his evidence on other regions of the world. He writes, “One should likewise be well acquainted with the particular signs and the other symptoms, and not be ignorant how that, in every year, and at every season, bad symptoms prognosticate ill, and favorable symptoms good, since the aforesaid symptoms appear to have held true in Libya, in Delos, and in Scythia, from which it may be known that, in the same regions, there is no difficulty in attaining a knowledge of many more things than these; if having learned them, one knows also how to judge and reason correctly of them” (53). The corresponding footnote explains, “According to Galen, Hippocrates means here that good and bad symptoms tell the same in all places, in the hot regions of Libya, and the cold of Scythia, and the temperate of Delos” (53). He begins to widen the data set by including a more global view, which also gives him more information when offering a prognosis.

In “The Law,” Hippocrates expresses his disgust with the current state of medicine. While he claims that medicine is the most noble art, he laments the fact that it trails all of the other arts because it lacks accountability. Since no one had official training, anyone could call themselves a doctor and prescribe whatever they desired. He claims that “Such persons are like the figures which are introduced in tragedies, for as they have the shape, and dress, and personal appearance of an actor, but are not actors, so also physicians are many in title but very few in reality” (303). Hippocrates demands more accountability in his profession. He asks that more people treat it with academic rigor rather than mystical charms, powders, and gimmicks. He says that, much like medicine, instruction is also an art form. Hippocrates, as both student and teacher, then labels some advantages necessary for medical students. He writes that the student needs “a natural disposition; instruction; a favorable position for the study; early tuition; love of labor; leisure” (303). From these advantages, the student may develop the necessary skills of their chosen art. Furthermore, he believes that without leisure, or time spent in contemplation, the medical doctor cannot begin to piece together the the intricacies of the human body. Hippocrates demonstrates the fruit of contemplation and leisure throughout his books on medicine.

These lines sketch not only the study of medicine, but of the most fruitful education system as well. Any discipline requires love of labor, access to instruction, as well as contemplation. In “The Law,” Hippocrates continues, “First of all, a natural talent is required; for, when Nature opposes, everything else is in vain; but when Nature leads the way to what is most excellent, instruction in the art takes place, which the student must try to appropriate to himself by reflection, becoming an early pupil in a place well adapted for instruction. He must also bring to the task a love of labor and perseverance, so that the instruction taking root may bring forth proper and abundant fruits” (303). Hippocrates reminds us that any path towards excellence requires study and perseverance.

Hippocrates. Great Books of the Western World, Volume 9. Ed. Mortimer Adler. Trans. Francis Adams. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica. 1990.

To leave a comment, click on the title of this post and scroll down.