Seven Brief Lessons on Physics | Reflections & Notes

Carlo Rovelli. Seven Brief Lessons on Physics. Riverhead Books, 2014. (86 pages) www.sevenbrieflessons.com. (.pdf)


REFLECTIONS


What a delightful little book. Truly wonderful. And super fun to read.

Though I have no formal training in physics, I’ve always loved the pursuit of understanding the full spectrum of our universe. From all the way down to quantum mechanics to all the way up to the multiverse, this stuff fascinates and captivates me, and I find joy in sharing it with others.

However, I’ve frequently been asked, “So, what does it all matter? How does knowing about quantum mechanics affect my life? I’m just trying to put food on the table. And then I just want to watch Netflix.” This, and questions like it, are usually posed by someone exhausted by the “highly academic” and “heady” stuff that seems to intrigue only the “elite” but has little to do with the “everyday commoner.” I have sympathies for that perspective and have frequently yielded to their demurral out of respect. After all, “scholars” are those with the “leisure” to study [from the Greek word, σχολη (skholé) meaning “leisure” or “spare time.” The English word “school” encapsulates the knowledge that grows out of conversations spent during that time. (cf. An Inquiry into the Philosophical Concept of Scholê: Leisure as a Political End)] When you’re just trying to survive the day, who has time to study this stuff? But while I respect the disinclination, a book like this comes along and persuades me anew. To understand our universe and our place within it is a worthy endeavor.

In this beautifully written, short explication of physics, Rovelli discusses heat, the theory of relativity, the nature of time, and quanta. But he also explicates what it means to have a vision, proposes a worldview of all things in relationship, defines “home,” the place of “myth” in human consciousness, and appeals to poetry for making sense of ourselves and our observations. While he ends with, “And it’s breathtaking,” I believe he would also accept the not as elegant, “And it’s meaningful.” Based upon the principle that, when it comes to meaning, “context is everything,” the greater we understand our physical context, the greater and more expansive our meaning becomes. Thus, I perceive the dynamism of my relationships to be an emergent outplay of the very fabric of the universe. I no longer have to consider time an enemy, but rather an illusion, an idea that can ultimately liberate. And if all things are merely “in process,” perhaps there are, quite literally, an infinite number of possible worlds that I could inhabit if I would see myself, not as a slave to fate, but as an agent of the quanta.

Is this too much? Perhaps. Will this convince those who wonder why this matters? Perhaps some. But herein lies the emergent paradox. Physics doesn’t care if it is meaningful, and yet it is the best–and only–context in which we can make meaning. And yes, it is breathtaking. (Read Why Fish Don’t Exist as an amazing journey that illustrates this through phenomenal storytelling.)

Thank you Ling for bringing this book to my attention.


NOTES


Preface

…science shows us how to better understand the world, but it also reveals to us just how vast is the extent of what is still not known. (1)

FIRST LESSON
The Most Beautiful of Theories

The gravitational field is not diffused through space; the gravitational field is that space itself. An entity that undulates, flexes, curves, twists. We are immersed in a gigantic flexible snail-shell. A colourful and amazing world where the unbounded extensions of interstellar space ripple and sway like the surface of the sea. –  www.sevenbrieflessons.com

You don’t get anywhere by not “wasting” time–something, unfortunately, that the parents of teenagers tend frequently to forget. (3)

[via: This is the “gift of boredom.”]

…the gravitational field is not diffused through space; the gravitational field is that space itself. This is the idea of the general theory of relativity. Newton’s “space,” through which things move, and the “gravitational field” are one and the same thing. (8)

| It’s a moment of enlightenment. A momentous simplification of the world: space is no longer something distinct from matter–it is one of the “material” components of the world. An entity that undulates, flexes, curves, twists. We are not contained within an invisible, rigid infrastructure: we are immersed in a gigantic, flexible snail shell. The sun bends space around itself, and Earth does not turn around it because o a mysterious force but because it is racing directly in a space that inclines, like a marble that rolls in a funnel. There are no mysterious forces generated at the center of the funnel; it is the curved nature of the walls that cause the marble to roll. Planets circle around the sun, and things fall, because space curves. (8)

cf. Riemann’s curvature [“R”]

Einstein wrote an equation that says that R is equivalent to the energy of matter. That is to say: space curves where there is matter. That is it. The equation fits into half a line, and there is nothing more. A vision–that space curves–became an equation. (9)

But it isn’t only space that curves; time does too. (10)

Einstein’s equation shows that space cannot stand still; it must be expanding. (10)

In short, the theory describes a colorful and amazing world where universes explode, space collapses into bottomless holes, time sags and slows near a planet, and the unbounded extensions of interstellar space ripple and sway like the surface of the sea… (11)

That’s it. (12)

SECOND LESSON
Quanta

Heisenberg imagines that electrons do not always exist. They only exist when someone watches them, or better, when they are interacting with something else. In quantum mechanics no object has a definite position, except when colliding headlong with something else. –  www.sevenbrieflessons.com

It seems to me that the observations associated with blackbody radiation, fluorescence, the production of cathode rays by ultraviolet light, and other related phenomena connected with the emission or transformation of light are more readily understood if one assumes that the energy of light is discontinuously distributed in space. In accordance with the assumption to be considered here, the energy of a light ray spreading out from a point source is not continuously distributed over an increasing space but consists of a finite number of energy quanta which are localized at points in space, which move without dividing, and which can only be produced and absorbed as complete units. – Concerning an Heuristic Point of View Toward the Emission and Transformation of Light, A. Einstein. Bern, 17 March 1905 (Received March 18, 1905). Translation into English; American Journal of Physics, v. 33, n. 5, May 1965.

Why are precisely these elements listed there, and why does the periodic table have this particular structure, with these periods, and with the elements having these specific properties? The answer is that each element corresponds to one solution of the main equation of quantum mechanics. The whole of chemistry emerges from a single equation. (17)

| The first to write the equations of the new theory, basing them on dizzying ideas, would be a young German of genius, Werner Heisenberg. (17)

| Heisenberg imagined that electrons do not always exist. They only exist when someone or something watches them, or better, when they are interacting with something else. They materialize in a place, with a calculable probability, when colliding with something else. The “quantum leaps” from one orbit to another are the only means they have of being “real”: an electron is a set of jumps from one interaction to another. When nothing disturbs it, it is not in any precise place. It is not in a “place” at all. (17)

It’s as if God had not designed reality with a line that was heavily scored but just dotted it with a faint outline. (18)

It is not possible to predict where an electron will reappear but only to calculate the probability that it will pop up here or there. The question of probability goes to the heart of physics, where everything had seemed to be regulated by firm laws that were universal and irrevocable. (18)

The equations of quantum mechanics and their consequences…do not describe what happens to a physical system but only how a physical system affects another physical system. (20)

| What does this mean? That the essential reality of a system is indescribable? Does it mean that we lack only a piece of the puzzle? Or does it mean, as it seems to me, that we must accept the idea that reality is only interaction? Our knowledge grows, in real terms. It allows us to do new things that we had previously not even imagined. But that growth has opened up new questions. New mysteries. (20)

THIRD LESSON
The Architecture of the Cosmos

Science begins with a vision. For millennia the earth is below, the sky above. Then the sun, moon and stars revolve around us. Then, the Earth is a great stone that floats suspended in space. Later, Copernicus understands and shows that our Earth is not at the centre of the dance of the planets, but that the sun is there instead. Our planet becomes one amongst the others. –  www.sevenbrieflessons.com

…before experiments, measurements, mathematics, and rigorous deductions, science is above all about visions. Science begins with a vision. Scientific thought is fed by the capacity to “see” things differently than they have previously been seen.

This first image represents how the cosmos was conceptualized for millennia: Earth below, the sky above. The first great scientific revolution, accomplished by Anaxamander twenty-six centuries ago when trying to figure out how it is possible that the sun, moon, and stars revolve around us, replaced the above image of the cosmos with [this one]: (24)

Soon someone (perhaps Parmenides, perhaps (24) Pythagoras) realized that the sphere is the most reasonable shape for this flying Earth for which all directions are equal–and Aristotle devised convincing scientific arguments to confirm the spherical nature of both Earth and the heavens around it where celestial objects run their course. Here is the resultant image of the cosmos: (25)

And this cosmos, as described by Aristotle in his book On the Heavens, is the image of the world that remained characteristic of Mediterranean civilizations right up until the end of the Middle Ages. It’s the image of the world that Dante and Shakespeare studied at school. (26)

| The next leap was accomplished by Copernicus inaugurating what has come to be called the great scientific revolution. The world for Copernicus is not so very different from Aristotle’s: (26)

But there is in fact a key difference. Taking up an idea already considered in antiquity, Copernicus understood and showed that our Earth is not at the center (26) of the dance of the planets but that the sun is there instead. (27)

The growth of our knowledge continued, and with improved instruments it was soon learned that the solar system iteself is only one among a vast number of others, and that the sun is no more than a star like others. An infinitesimal speck in a vast cloud of one hundred billion stars–the Galaxy:

In the 1930s, however, precise measurements by astronomers of the nebulae–small whitish clouds between the stars–showed that the Galaxy itself is a speck of dust in a huge cloud of galaxies, which extends (27) as far as the eye can see using even our most powerful telescopes. The world has now become a uniform and boundless expanse. (28)

There are therefore in the universe thousands of billions of billions of billions of planets such as Earth. And in every direction in which we look, this it what appears: (28)

But this endless uniformity, in turn, is not what it seems. As I explained in the first lesson, space is not flat but curved. We have to imagine the texture of the universe, with its splashes of galaxies, being moved by waves similar to those of the sea, sometimes so agitated as to create the gaps that are black holes. So let’s return to a drawn image, in order to represent this universe furrowed by great waves: (29)

And finally, we now know that this immense, elastic cosmos, studded with galaxies and fifteen billion years in the making, emerged from an extremely hot and dense small cloud. To represent this vision, we no longer need to draw the universe but to draw its entire history. Here it is, diagrammatically: (29)

FOURTH LESSON
Particles

Even if we observe an empty region of space, in which there are no atoms, we still detect a minute swarming of these particles. There is no such thing as a real void, one that is completely empty. Just as the calmest sea looked at closely sways and trembles, however slightly, so the fields that form the world are subject to minute fluctuations. –  www.sevenbrieflessons.com

Both protons and neutrons are made up of even smaller particles that the American physicist Murray Gell-Mann named “quarks,” inspired by a seemingly nonsensical word in a nonsensical phrase in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake: “Three quarks for Muster Mark!” (31)

The force that “glues” quarks inside protons and neutrons is generated by particles that physicists, with little sense of the ridiculous, call “gluons.” (32)

To these particles a few others are added, such as the neutrinos, which swarm throughout the universe but have little interaction with us, and the “Higgs bosons,” recently detected in Geneva in CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. (32)

These particles do not have a pebble-like reality but are rather the “quanta” of corresponding fields, just as photons are the “quanta” of the electromagnetic field. They are elementary excitations of a moving substratum similar to the field of Faraday and Maxwell. (32)

There is no such thing as a real void, one that is completely empty. (33)

The very way in which the equations of the Standard Model make predictions about the world is also absurdly convoluted. Used directly, these equations lead to nonsensical predictions where each calculated quantity turns out to be infinitely large. To get meaningful re-(34)sults, it is necessary to imagine that the parameters entering into them are themselves infinitely large, in order to counterbalance the absurd results and make them reasonable. This convoluted and baroque procedure is given the technical term “renormalization.” It works in practice but leaves a bitter taste in the mouth of anyone desiring simplicity of nature. (35)

In addition, a striking limitation of the Standard Model has appeared in recent years. Around every galaxy, astronomers observe a large cloud of material that reveals its existence via the gravitational pull that it exerts upon stars and by the way it deflects light. But this great cloud, of which we observe the gravitational effects, cannot be seen directly and we do not know what it is made of. Numerous hypotheses have been proposed, none of which seem to work. It’s clear that there is something there, but we don’t know what. Nowadays it is called “dark matter.” Evidence indicates that it is some-(35)thing not described by the Standard Model; otherwise we would see it. Something other than atoms, neutrinos, or photons… (36)

The story is probably repeating itself now with a group of theories known as “supersymmetric,” which predicts the existence of a new class of particles. (37)

For now, this is what we know of matter: (37)

| A handful of types of elementary particles, which vi-(37)brate and fluctuate constantly between existence and nonexistence and swarm in space, even when it seems that there is nothing there, combine together to infinity like the letters of a cosmic alphabet to tell the immense history of galaxies; of the innumerable stars; of sunlight; of mountains, woods, and fields of grain; of the smiling faces of the young at parties; and of the night sky studded with stars. (38)

FIFTH LESSON
Grains of Space

In the heavens we can now observe black holes formed by collapsed stars. Crushed by its own weight, the matter of these stars has collapsed upon itself and disappeared from our view. Once compressed to the maximum, it rebounds and begins to expand again. This leads to an explosion of the black hole. –  www.sevenbrieflessons.com

There’s a paradox at the heart of our understanding of the physical world. The twentieth century gave us the two gems of which I have spoken: general relativity and quantum mechanics. From the first cosmology developed, as well as astrophysics, the study of gravitational waves, of black holes, and much else besides. The second provided the foundation for atomic physics, nuclear (39) physics, the physics of elementary particles, the physics of condensed matter, and much, much more. Two theories, profligate in their gifts, which are fundamental to today’s technology and have transformed the way we live. And yet the two theories cannot both be right, at least in their current forms, because they contradict each other. (40)

In the morning the world is curved space where everything is continuous; in the afternoon it is a flat space where quanta of energy leap. (40)

| The paradox is that both theories work remarkably well.

Here, in the vanguard, beyond the borders of knowledge, science becomes even more beautiful–incandes-(41)cent in the forge of nascent ideas, of intuitions, of attempts. Of roads taken and then abandoned, of enthusiasms. In the effort to imagine what has not yet been imagined. (42)

One of the principal attempts to solve the problem is a direction of research called “loop quantum gravity,” … (42)

The idea is simple. General relativity has taught us that space is not an inert box but rather something dynamic: a kind of immense, mobile snail shell in which we are contained–one that can be compressed and twisted. Quantum mechanics, on the other hand, has taught us that every field of this kind is “made of quanta” and has a fine, granular structure. (43)

Where are these quanta of space? Nowhere. They are not in space because they are themselves the space. Space is created by the linking of these individual quanta of gravity. Once again, the world seems to be less about objects than about interactive relationships. (43)

The equations describing grains of space and matter no longer contain the variable “time.” This doesn’t mean that everything is stationary and unchanging. On the contrary, it means that change is ubiquitous–but elementary processes cannot be ordered in a common succession of “instants.” (44)

There is no longer space that “contains” the world, and there is no longer time “in which” events occur. There are only elementary processes wherein quanta of space and matter continually interact with one another. THe illusion of space and time that continues around us is a blurred vision of this swarming of elementary processes, just as a calm, clear Alpine lake consists in reality of a rapid dance of myriads of minuscule water molecules. (44)

| Viewed in extreme close-up through an ultrapowerful magnifying glass, the penultimate image in our third lesson should show the granular structure of space:

This hypothetical final stage in the life of a star, where the quantum fluctuations of space-time balance the weight of matter, is what is known as a ‘Planck star’. If the sun were to stop burning and to form a black hole it would measure about one and a half kilometers in diameter. Inside this black hole the sun’s matter would continue to collapse, eventually becoming such a Planck star. Its dimensions would then be similar to those of an atom. The entire matter of the sun condensed into the space of an atom: a Planck star should be constituted by this extreme state of matter. (46)

| A Planck star is not stable: once compressed to the maximum it rebounds and begins to expand again. This leads to an explosion of the black hole. This process, as seen by a hypothetical observer sitting in the black hole on the Planck star, would be a rebound occurring at great speed. But time does not pass at the same speed for her as for those outside the black hole, for the same reason that in the mountains time passes faster than at sea-level. Except that for her, because of the extreme conditions, the difference in the passage of time is enormous, and what for the observer on the star would seem an ex-(46)tremely rapid bounce would appear, seen from outside it, to take place over a very long time. This is why we observe black holes remaining the same for long periods of time: a black hole is a rebounding star seen in extreme slow motion.

What we find is that when the universe is extremely compressed quantum theory generates a repulsive force, with (48) the result that the great explosion or ‘big bang’ may have actually been a ‘big bounce’. Our world may have actually been born from a preceding universe which contracted under its own weight until it was squeezed into a tiny space before ‘bouncing’ out and beginning to reexpand, thus becoming the expanding universe which we observe around us. (48)

The moment of this bounce, when the universe was contracted into a nutshell, is the true realm of quantum gravity: time and space have disappeared altogether, and the world has dissolved into a swarming cloud of probability which the equations can, however, still describe. And the final image of the fifth lesson is transformed thus:

Our universe may have been born from a bounce in a prior phase, passing through an intermediate phase in which there was neither space nor time.

SIXTH LESSON
Probability, Time, and the Heat of Black Holes

In every case in which heat exchange does not occur, or when the heat exchanged is negligible, we see that the future behaves exactly like the past. While there is no friction, for instance, a pendulum can swing forever. But if there is friction then the pendulum heats its supports slightly, loses energy and slows down. Friction produces heat. And immediately we are able to distinguish the future (towards which the pendulum slows) from the past. –  www.sevenbrieflessons.com

“What is heat?” (51)

What they came to understand is that a hot substance is not one which contains caloric fluid. A hot substance is a substance in which atoms move more quickly. (52)

Why does heat go from hot things to cold things, and not vice versa? (52)

| It is a crucial question because it relates to the nature of time. In every case in which heat exchange does not occur, or when the heat exchanged is negligible, we see that the future behaves exactly like the past. For example, for the motion of the planets of the solar system heat is almost irrelevant, and in fact this same motion could equally take place in reverse without any law of (52) physics being infringed. As soon as there is heat, however, the future is different from the past. While there is no friction, for instance, a pendulum can swing forever. If we filmed it and ran the film in reverse we would see movement that is completely possible. But if there is friction then the pendulum heats its supports slightly, loses energy and slows down. Friction produces heat. And immediately we are able to distinguish the future (towards which the pendulum slows) from the past. We have never seen a pendulum start swinging from a stationary position, with its movement initiated by the energy obtained by absorbing heat from its supports. The difference between past and future only exists when there is heat. The fundamental phenomenon that distinguishes the future from the past is the fact that heat passes from things that are hotter to things that are colder. (53)

| So, again, why, as time goes by, does heat pass from hot things to cold and not the other way round? (53)

| The reason was discovered by Boltzmann, and is surprisingly simple: it is sheer chance. (53)

Boltzmann’s idea is subtle, and brings into play the idea of probability. Heat does not move from hot things to cold things due to an absolute law: it only does so with (53) a large degree of probability. The reason for this is that it is statistically more probable that a quickly moving atom of the hot substance collides with a cold one and leaves it a little of its energy, rather than vice versa. Energy is conserved in the collisions but tends to get distributed in more or less equal parts when there are many collisions. In this way the temperature of objects in contact with each other tends to equalize. It is not impossible for a hot body to become hotter through contact with a colder one: it is just extremely improbable. (54)

This bringing of probability to the heart of physics, and using it to explain the bases of the dynamics of heat, was initially considered to be absurd. (54)

In the second lesson I related how quantum mechanics predicts that the movement of every minute thing occurs by chance. This puts probability into play as well. But the probability which Boltzmann considered, the probability at the roots of heat, has a different nature, and is independent of quantum mechanics. The prob-(54)ability in play in the science of heat is in a certain sense tied to our ignorance. (55)

…the probability that when molecules collide heat passes from the hotter bodies to those which are colder can be calculated, and turns out to be much greater than the probability of heat moving toward the hotter body. (56)

| The branch of science which clarifies these things is called statistical physics, and one of its triumphs, beginning with Boltzmann, has been to understand the probabilistic nature of heat and temperature, that is to say, thermodynamics. (56)

| At first glance, the idea that our ignorance implies something about the behavior of the world seems irrational: the cold teaspoon heats up in hot tea and the balloon flies about when it is released regardless of what I know or don’t know. What does what we know or don’t know have to do with the laws that govern the world? The question is legitimate; the answer to it is subtle. (56)

Teaspoon and balloon behave as they must, following the laws of physics in complete independence from what we know or don’t know about them. The predictability or unpredictability of their behaviour does not pertain to their precise condition; it pertains to the limited set of their properties with which we interact. This set of properties depends on our specific way of interacting with the teaspoon or the balloon. Probability does not refer to the evolution of matter in itself. It relates to the evolution of those specific quantities we interact with. Once again, the profoundly relational nature of the concepts we use to organize the world emerges. (57)

…what exactly is the flow of time? (58)

Another way of posing the problem is to ask oneself: what is the ‘present’? We say that only the things of the present exist: the past no longer exists and the future doesn’t exist yet. But in physics there is nothing that corresponds to the notion of the ‘now’. Compare ‘now’ with ‘here’. ‘Here’ designates the place where a speaker is: for two different people ‘here’ points to two different places. Consequently ‘here’ is a word the meaning of which depends on where it is spoken. The technical term for this kind of utterance is ‘indexical’. ‘Now’ also points to the instant in which the word is uttered, and is also classed as ‘indexical’. But no one would dream of saying that things ‘here’ exist, whereas things which are not ‘here’ do not exist. So then why do we say that things that are ‘now’ exist and that everything else doesn’t? Is the present something which is objective in the (59) world, that ‘flows’ and that makes things ‘exist’ one after the other, or is it only subjective, like ‘here’? (60)

Physicists and philosophers have come to the conclusion that the idea of a present that is common to the whole universe is an illusion, and that the universal ‘flow’ of time is a generalization that doesn’t work. (60)

To trust immediate intuitions rather than collective examination that is rational, careful and intelligent is not wisdom: it is the presumption of an old man who refuses to believe that the great world outside his village is any different from the one which he has always known. (61)

Using quantum mechanics, [Stephen] Hawking successfully demonstrated that black holes are always “hot.” (63)

The heat of black holes is like the Rosetta stone of physics, written in a combination of three languages–quantum, gravitational, and thermodynamic–still awaiting decipherment in order to reveal the true nature of time. (64)

IN CLOSING
Ourselves

I believe that our species will not last long. It does not seem to be made of the stuff that has allowed the turtle, for example to continue to exist more or less unchanged for hundreds of millions of years; for hundreds of times longer, that is, than we have even been in existence. We belong to a short-lived genus of species. All of our cousins are already extinct. What’s more, we do damage. There are frontiers where we are learning, and our desire for knowledge burns. They are in the most minute reaches of the fabric of space, at the origins of the cosmos, in the nature of time, in the phenomenon of black holes, and in the workings of our own thought processes. Here, on the edge of what we know, in contact with the ocean of the unknown, shines the mystery and the beauty of the world. And it’s breathtaking. –  www.sevenbrieflessons.com

What role do we have as human beings who perceive, make decisions, laugh and cry, in this great fresco of the world as depicted by contemporary physics? If the world is a swarm of ephemeral quanta of space and matter, a great jigsaw puzzle of space and elementary particles, then what are we? Do we also consist only of quanta and particles? If so, then from where do we get that sense of individual existence and unique selfhood to which (65) we can all testify? And what then are our values, our dreams, our emotions, our individual knowledge? What are we, in this boundless and glowing world?

‘We’, human beings, are first and foremost the subjects who do the observing of this world; the collective makers of the photograph of reality which I have tried to compose. We are nodes in a network of exchanges (of which this present book is an example) through which we pass images, tools, information and knowledge. (66)

| But we are also an integral part of the world which we perceive; we are not external observers. We are situated within it. Our view of it is from within its midst. We are made up of the same atoms and the same light signals as are exchanged between pine trees in the mountains and stars in the galaxies. (66)

If we are special, we are only special in the way that everyone feels themselves to be, like every mother is for her child. Certainly not for the rest of nature. (67) … we are merely a flourish among innumerably many such flourishes. (68)

The images which we construct of the universe live within us, in the space of our thoughts. Between these images – between what we can reconstruct and understand with our limited means – and the reality of which we are part, there exist countless filters: our ignorance, the limitations of our senses and of our intelligence. The very same conditions that our nature as subjects, and particular subjects, imposes upon experience. (68)

When we talk about the Big Bang or the fabric of space, what we are doing is not a continuation of the free and fantastic stories which humans have told nightly around campfires for hundreds of thousands of years. It is the continuation of something else: of the gaze of those same men in the first light of day looking at tracks left by antelope in the dust of the savannah – scrutinizing and deducting from the details of reality in order to pursue something which we can’t see directly but can follow the traces of. In the awareness that we can always be wrong, and therefore ready at any moment to change direction if a new track appears; but knowing also that if we are good enough we will get it right and will find what we are seeking. This is the nature of science. (69)

| The confusion between these two diverse human activities – inventing stories and following traces in order to find something – is the origin of the incomprehension and distrust of science shown by a significant part of our contemporary culture. The separation is a subtle one: the antelope hunted at dawn is not far removed from the antelope deity in that night’s storytelling. (69)

The border is porous. Myths nourish science, and science nourishes myth. But the value of knowledge remains. If we find the antelope we can eat. (69)

This communication between ourselves and the world is not what distinguishes us from the rest of nature. All things are continually interacting with each other, and in doing so each bears the traces of that with which it has interacted: and in this sense all things continuously exchange information about each other. (70)

There is one issue in particular regarding ourselves which often leaves us perplexed: what does it mean, our being free to make decisions, if our behavior does nothing but follow the predetermined laws of nature? Is there not perhaps a contradiction between our feeling of freedom and the rigour, as we now understand it, with which things operate in the world? Is there perhaps something in us which escapes the regularity of nature, and allows us to twist and deviate from it through the power of our freedom to think? (72)

The solution to the confusion lies elsewhere. When we say that we are free, and it’s true that we can be, this means that how we behave is determined by what happens within us, within the brain, and not by external factors. To be free doesn’t mean that our behaviour is not determined by the laws of nature. It means that it is determined by the laws of nature acting in our brains. (73)

| Our free decisions are freely determined by the results of the rich and fleeting interactions between the billion neurons in our brain: they are free to the extent that the interaction of these neurons allows and determines. (73)

There is not an ‘I’ and ‘the neurons in my brain’. They are the same thing. An individual is a process: complex, tightly integrated. (73)

That which makes us specifically human does not signify our separation from nature; it is part of that self-same nature. It’s a form which nature has taken here on our planet, in the infinite play of its combinations, through the reciprocal influencing and exchanging of correlations and information between its parts. Who knows how many and which other extraordinary complexities exist, in forms perhaps impossible for us to imagine, in the endless spaces of the cosmos … There is so much space up there that it is childish to think that in a peripheral corner of an ordinary galaxy there should be something uniquely special. Life on Earth gives only a small taste of what can happen in the universe. Our very soul itself is only one such small example. (76)

It is not against nature to be curious: it is in our nature to be so. (77)

And as Lucretius wrote: ‘our appetite for life is voracious, our thirst for life insatiable’ (De rerum natura, III, 1084). But immersed in this nature which made us and which directs us, we are not homeless beings suspended between two worlds, parts of but only partly belonging to nature, with a longing for something else. No: we are home. (79)

This strange, multicolored, and astonishing world that we explore–where space is granular, time does not exist, and things are nowhere–is not something that estranges us from our true selves, for this is only what our natural curiosity reveals to us about the place of our dwelling. (79)

Lucretius expresses this, wonderfully:

…we are all born from the same celestial seed;
all of us have the same father,
from which the earth, the mother who feeds us,
receives clear drops of rain,
producing from them bright wheat
and lush trees,
and the human race,
and the species of beasts,
offering up the foods with which all bodies are nourished,
to lead a sweet life
and generate offspring…

(De rerum natura, bk. II, lines 991-97)

There are frontiers where we are learning, and our (80) desire for knowledge burns. They are in the most minute reaches of the fabric of space, at the origins of the cosmos, in the nature of time, in the phenomenon of black holes, and in the workings of our own thought processes. Here, on the edge of what we know, in contact with the ocean of the unknown, shines the mystery and the beauty of the world. And it’s breathtaking. (81)

About VIA

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