Czesław Miłosz’s “This World” (1994)
It’s a question you’ve certainly heard before – the laws of physics work just fine when you run time backwards, so why, in the real world, does time only go forwards?
Run a movie backwards, and what you see could never happen in real life: a diver never leaps feet first out of the pool onto the board, while drops of water fling themselves back in. But, as Richard Feynman explained, at the level of atoms and molecules, there is no reason why running the film backward should be absurd – our laws of physics say time is reversible at the microscopic level. Feynman argued that time’s forward motion was a macroscopic phenomenon, rooted in the universe’s relentless increase in entropy. Physicist Lee Smolin has pursued a similar (but in many ways a radically different) idea – the forward flow of time is a consequence of a network of relationships in the universe. He may be right, but for the time being, why time is not reversible is still a deep mystery.
Physics isn’t the only place where reversibility appears to be a mystery. Why isn’t life reversible? Aging and death seem inevitable for us individually, but with each birth, the clock is reset. Biological time is reversed. How is that possible?
We don’t really know. Before your children are born you age twenty, thirty, or forty years. Your DNA has been copied and recopied, accumulating damage, telomeres have shortened, and your cells are on the way towards senescence, and yet each newborn gets a fresh start. Amazingly, each successive generation of children is not born ever more prematurely aged. If the clock can be reset for our germ cells, why can’t we reverse biological time in the rest of our cells? Continue reading
Wallace Stevens’ “What We See Is What We Think” (1949)
How much of what we see depends on what we think?
In one sense, everything; seeing is not a passive process, but a sophisticated act executed by our neural circuits. In another sense, seeing is what we choose to see, as Harvard psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons demonstrated with their famous video of the gorilla walking across the basketball court.
But does the relationship between thinking and seeing go deeper than the involuntary side effects of our selective attention? Thomas Kuhn argued that it did, in his notorious chapter X from The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (the chapter philosophers refer to, in a classic example of academia’s demented sense of humor, as the ‘X-rated chapter X’): Continue reading
Robert Frost’s “A Loose Mountain” (1942)
A Balearic slinging competition, as I learned from slinging.org, involves slinging rocks at an iron disk fastened to the center of a board. In “A Loose Mountain,” Frost suggests that the Earth may be the target of a cosmic slinging game played with loose mountains instead of small stones, and that the major contestant, the Outer Black, is just waiting for the perfect shot.
Frost plays on the tension between our remarkable achievements as a species and our apparent insignificance in the universe. We can stand outside and ooh and aah over the incineration of high velocity rocks during the Leonid meteor shower, and then walk back inside, out of the night and into our well-lit homes, no longer at the mercy of the diurnal cycle. And yet there is no reason we can’t be snuffed out with one well-placed asteroid, just like the dinosaurs.
Seamus Heaney’s “Death of a Naturalist” (1966)
In honor of Irish Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, who died Friday, we’re reading “Death of a Naturalist”, from Heaney’s first poetry collection.
As the old cliché goes, children are natural scientists, and of those who do grow up to be professional scientists, their childhood obsessions reveal what kind they’ll become. Physicists grow up tinkering with radio sets (or more recently, computers), while biologists roam the woods catching frogs and snakes, or in Darwin’s case, beetles. There are exceptions, of course (and in fact, I suspect that childhood obsessions poorly predict career outcomes), but Edward O. Wilson’s childhood pursuit of venemous snakes in the Alabama swamps fits the cliché:
A swamp filled with snakes may be a nightmare to most, but for me it was a ceaselessly rotating lattice of wonders. I had the same interest in the diversity of snakes that other 15-year-old boys seemed automatically to develop in the years and makes of automobiles. And knowing them well, I had no fear. On each visit I found something new. I captured live specimens, brought them home to cages I had constructed of wood and wire mesh, and fed them frogs and minnows I collected at the hatchery.
Even after a nearly lethal encounter with a Cottonmouth as big as he was, Wilson was not deterred, and he grew up to be a renowned naturalist. Not so the boy in Heaney’s poem, whose shocking first encounter with unsentimentalized biology ends his budding career as a naturalist. Instead, he becomes a great poet. Continue reading
May Swenson’s ‘The People Wall’ (1967)
In 1965, if you wanted to see what the future was going to look like, you could go to the New York World’s Fair. Under the giant green Moon Dome of the Transportation & Travel Pavilion, you could see the future of space travel; at the DuPont exhibit, you could see futuristic fabrics featured in a musical comedy about chemistry; at the Hall of Science, kids could play radioactive waste disposal in Atomsville, USA; and at the General Motors Futurama II exhibit, you could watch vacationers lounging in underwater cities, and see how in the future trees will be felled with laser beams.
One of the more spectacular exhibits was IBM’s People Wall, a giant grandstand that lifted the visitors into a spectacular “gunite-spayed steel egg, about the size of a Navy blimp,” where they would be bombarded with futuristic images on 14 different screens in what was supposed to be a visual display of state-of-the-art computer data processing. (I have no idea what gunite is, but it sounds futuristic.) Continue reading