Monday, February 23, 2009

Emanuel Swedenborg - Part I : Enlightenment Era Mathematician,Scientist, Philosopher, and....what the hell?

There are the big names in the history of science and math - Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Descartes, Einstein, to name a few - and there are peculiar names in the history of science and math. One of the more peculiar and interesting of these names was a Swedish man known as Emanuel Swedenborg, born in 1688, died in 1772. He lived in the midst of what is known in Europe as the Age of Reason, a time when science and math toppled the tower of authority of the church and yanked mankind forever from the center of the universe (well, Rush Limbough is still there in his own mind, but that's another topic). It was an exciting and heady time for those who had the privilege of education and access to books, for the explosion of discovery and discussion under the umbrella of unbridled reason was explosive and far-reaching. It was this era that laid the groundwork for the industrial revolution, the quantum revolution, and our current technological revolution. Emanuel Swedenborg was the right man at the right time and place - a brilliant, curious and passionate spirit who latched onto the possibilities and ran a very, very long way.

Swedenborg was privileged, born to a politically ambitious Bishop who had married into money, and received not only the best available education of the day, but also the ability to travel and study abroad. From a young age he was obsessed with the possibilities of mathematics and science, and dove headfirst into every topic he could get his hands on. He read voraciously, apprenticed with instrument makers so he could build his own laboratory equipment, searched out all of the greatest minds of his day so he could engage in direct dialogue with them, and generally sopped up everything he could wrap his brain around. Swedenborg never married (though reportedly had many lovers), so was never tied down by the responsibilities of family life and devoted himself entirely to his studies. He spoke nine languages fluently, including Latin and Hebrew (Latin was the language of all published works of that day). He wrote extensively - his volumes of published works in the fields of mathematics, biology, engineering and anatomy take up three full shelves at the Denver public library.

To get an idea of the brilliance of this man, one need only look at his work in human brain anatomy. In his fifties, settling down after a long brilliant career, Emanuel decided to study brain anatomy and traveled to Paris to work with the, then, most learned brain anatomist (this involved, ugh, dissecting dead people's brains, but what the hell). He proposed, from his studies, theories about the function of parts of the brain that were only to be proven 200 years later by neurologists having sufficiently sophisticated equipment! This man was a brilliant synthesizer, able to put together his own investigations and the discoveries of others and make them into wholly new and groundbreaking conclusions.

Then, at the age of 56, angels started talking to him.

To be continued.....

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Emanuel Swedenborg - Part II : Madness, or Rude Awakening?

That's right, angels (or would it be more proper to say Angels?). Emanuel woke up in the middle of the night in the midst of his 56th year and found himself in the presence of angels, who promptly told him he was to listen to what they would tell him and write it down for posterity. He spent the next 26 years doing exactly that, writing and publishing many volumes written in the same lucid and rational style he had employed in his scientific writings, albeit about the structure and meaning of heaven and hell rather than the structure and meaning of brain anatomy. He also spoke from time to time with the wandering souls of past acquaintances who were deceased. He developed some odd psychic-like abilities as well - once on a trip to visit friends in a city 300 km from his home, he suddenly became very agitated during dinner, exclaiming that there was a fire in his neighborhood and it was threatening his house. For two hours he paced about with anxiety, until finally he calmed, announcing that the fire had been stopped three doors down and his abode was safe. Remember, the quickest form of communication in those days was horseback, and 3 days later news finally arrived that confirmed every detail that he had described, to the minute!

But let's back up a bit. Emanuel Swedenborg was not exactly your typical Enlightenment Era scientist. For one, he kept a dream journal for most of his adult life. In those days that was, to say the least, unusual. Dreams conjured up biblical references, and that was a definite no-no in the Age of Reason; and besides, what's reasonable about dreams? He never published these, but after his death a nephew discovered them and had them published, causing quite a scandal since they included very detailed erotic descriptions from time to time - you know what I mean, don't you? To be keenly interested in dreams suggests a bit of woo-woo in Emanuel's nature. And, in some of his philosophical writings during the time he was studying brain anatomy, he revealed his intent with that pursuit - to find the location of the soul. Soul? You mean, woo-woo? Emanuel also had one very unusual practice he used from his teen years - when thinking on a subject or problem, he would hold his breath as long as he could while concentrating on finding the solution. This is, in fact, a traditional East Indian yoga meditational practice, one he would have no contact with but which he apparently stumbled onto and found quite useful. Obviously there was more going on with this man than one might assume (remember, always examine your assumptions!)

Being a practical man, Swedenborg had his angelically inspired writings printed in Germany so as not to alarm his neighbors and colleagues, but word got out, as it always does. Many of his scientific friends became extremely concerned, and some paid him a visit to see if he had indeed gone off the deep end. Every one of them came away shaking their heads, saying that he seemed not only quite functional and lucid, but that he appeared to be extremely happy and jovial. Now remember, he received no electo-shock treatment, lobotomy, Freudian analysis, anger management counseling, 12-step counseling, or prozac - yet he was perfectly happy, and talking with angels to boot! Damn, I gotta get some of that...

Not surprisingly, much of Swedenborg's scientific work was lost from the literature in light of the embarrassment within the scientific community over his later writings. He was only rediscovered early in the 20th century and is now regarded as a giant in the history of science. But what are we to make of the last 26 years of his life, the years in conversation with angels? Was he psychotic, hallucinating? If so, what exactly is...hallucinating? What are dreams, but sleeping hallucinations? Or are they? hmmmmmmmmmmm...........

To be continued

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Emanuel Swedenborg - Part III: Vision or Hallucination?

A funny thing happened to our friend Enanuel, and when funny things happen it's often a message from the universe telling us to stop and take note, wake up from our sleep of normality and have a second look, and maybe even a third. It's easy to ignore the message, chalk it up to "hallucination", or "imagination run amuck", or "religious escapism", or, worse yet, "psychotic delusion". That is, in fact, what most of his closest friends and colleagues did. The amazing thing is that Emanuel ignored them and happily went his way, responding with a smile and a wink, then proceeding back to his home to have more interesting conversations with angels and spirits. For 26 years. Without haste, without rest.

So what can we make of this? First off, I'd like to say I'm not interested in trivializing the pain and tragedy of the very real incapacitating mental illnesses that so many around us endure. Having said that, I don't think Emanuel suffered an illness - he not only was not incapacitated, he continued writing prolifically to a ripe old age. He was thought of as a charming and intelligent conversationalist, a kind and considerate neighbor, and a delightful dinner companion. This poses a conundrum for the contemporary psychiatric point of view, from which view his talking with angels can only be considered abnormal and the result of some kind of brain malfunction. However, there are other points of view to be considered. From the traditional shamanistic perspective the visitation of angels makes perfect sense - the differance between an animal spirit guide and an angel may be no more than a differance in cultural filter (an aside is relevent here - studies of near death experiences in different cultures suggest that, at least in the first stages of death, we organize and understand what's happening through these same familiar cultural filters - Christians see angels, Buddhists see spirits of Bodhisattvas, Hindus see Krishna or Shanti, etc.). In many traditional cultures spirits are taken for granted, and one who perceives spirit is said to be...inspired. Of course, science has proven - proven I say! - thaat this spirit belief is nothing but fantasy, brainwashing, and/or abnormal brain function.

So here we are with two ways of looking at Emanuel's late life transformation. On the one hand, our contemporary scientific mechanistic view - he was hallucinating. On the other hand, the traditional shamanistic spirit/magic view - he had a vision. Hallucination or vision? Turns out, it depends on how you look at it, just like...oh my god...quantum physics!!!! When looking at light, if you're looking for a particle you see a photon particle, if you're looking for a wave you see waves and frequencies. What light is depends on how you look at it. Or, maybe more importantly, on what your assumptions are. And as we all know (I hope), it's always a good thing to examine our assumptions.

So Emanuel Swedenborg can be said, among other things, to be an object lesson in examining our assumptions through the magical catalyst I like to call woo-woo. I think I said it before but I'll say it again - I like woo-woo.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Woo Woo part 1 : Waving Particles, Probably Like Making Art

I like science. I don't always get it completely, but there is one thing I get - when you travel way out there to the far reaches of science, whether quantum physics or astrophysics or anything in between, it gets very woo woo. I mean very, very woo woo. I like woo woo.

So lets start with light. Very basic thing, light, but what the hell is it? Have you ever really asked yourself that question? Scientists have, and they've been asking it for a long time, and they're still arguing about it, which is kinda good and kinda unnerving at the same time. Back in 1803 a guy named Thomas Young devised a simple experiment to get at the problem of what the hell light is. He cut a slit in a piece of paper and shined a light through it onto another piece of paper a few inches behind it. The light striking the back piece of paper formed a kind of fuzzy round image. He then cut a second slit in the front piece close to the first slit, and shined the same light through the two slits. This time the light on the back piece formed a pattern of alternating dark and light slits, brighter and darker in the middle and gradually losing intensity at the edges. What did this tell him? It told him light was a wave.

To wrap your brain around this, think of yourself as a kid, camping out in the mountains next to a lake with your family. You and your sibling get up early one morning but your parents are still sleeping because they got carried away drinking that expensive wine they brought along, and they're on vacation and don't give a damn when they wake up, and being adults they're clueless anyway. So breakfast will have to wait and the two of you decide to take a hike around the lake. It's a very calm morning and the lake is glassy smooth, perfectly calm. What's the first thing the two of you want to do standing at the edge of that peaceful, calm lake? You wanna throw a rock in it and make waves. Why? BECAUSE THAT'S WHAT KIDS DO, THEY MAKE WAVES! So you both throw a rock, each trying to outdistance the other. And it's very cool when the rocks hit the surface a few yards apart and start two circles of radiating waves on the otherwise peaceful, calm lake. As you watch you notice something about waves -there are alternating high points and low points that are moving along the lake, the high points being higher than the surface and the low points being lower (later in high school physics class you find out, if you were paying attention, that these are called crests and troughs) . This is very pretty and mesmerizing, until the two bands of radiating waves collide and a strange thing happens -when a crest meets a crest, it leaps up higher, when a trough meets a trough it dives down lower, and when a crest meets a trough it's just flat. Wow, very cool!

The name of this phenomenon is wave interference, and waves of all kinds do it when they cross. Now, in Young's slit experiment, the bands of light are just like the colliding waves on that bucolic lake of your youth. When the light went through the two slits, the slits bent the light just a bit so that the waves of light crossed each other. Where two crests crossed, they formed a bright band of light, where two troughs crossed they formed another band of bright light, and where a crest crossed a trough they neutralized each other and formed a dark band. This is what water does. This is what light does. Therefore, light must be a wave.

This may not seem like such a big deal to us in the 21st century, but is was a big deal in 1803, and for the next hundred years or so this was the way science thought about light, as a wave. Until a young dude named Einstein showed up on the scene.

To be continued...

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Woo Woo part 2 : Particles Waving...again, and again, and again.....

So, light is coming to us from the sun in waves, but what is it traveling on? Ocean waves are energy traveling in the medium of water, but light, which is also energy, is going through space, which is empty..."Hmmmm", says the mid-19th century physicist, "there must be something in space after all. Let's call it ether!" Which is kinda like saying to a man who just told you he talks with angels that he's hallucinating, which is really saying to him I don't know what the bleep is going on but if I give it a name I feel better. So everyone was feeling good about the ether theory until two guys in 1887, Michelson and Morley, did an experiment to prove there was no ether (trust me, it's complicated but the experiment worked). Suddenly, everyone was in a quandary - if light travels in waves, how does it do it in a vacuum?

Then, in 1900, the plot thickened. Max Planck, considered the father of quantum theory, proved that energy travels in discreet packets, which he called quanta. In other words, energy at the smallest level does not go up and down smoothly, but jerks up (or down) in little spasms, or jumps - quantas. And this is where Einstein comes in; taking a clue from Planck, Einstein created an experiment using photo-sensitive materials and showed, in a paper published in 1908, that when light was shined on these photo-sensitive materials it knocked off individual electrons, not in a wave pattern but in a scattered pattern. Einstein showed with this experiment that light was, in fact, individual photons, or quanta of energy, pummeling the photo-sensitive material like a barrage of photon torpedoes! (OK, Einstein didn't call them photon torpedoes. In the early years of the Star Trek TV series, they employed physicists to consult them on the science of the the future. Photon torpedoes, warp drive, etc., were all inventions of these physicists/consultants. There's a book on the topic, called "The Science of Star Trek").

Now comes the dilemma, or shall we say, the woo woo. Thomas Young proved that light travels in waves. Einstein proved that light is a particle. So what is it, a wave or a particle? Let's think back to Young's double slit experiment, and use it to create what is called a thought experiment; in other words, imagine a real experiment that we can't really do but which we can...imagine. Let's say we have that double slit thingy, and behind it a wall that the light hits after traveling through the slits. Now, lets cover one of the slits, say the right slit, and fire a photon toward the left slit (Einstein couldn't do this in his experiments, but today this is actually possible). The photon hits somewhere within that fuzzy circle on the back wall, possibly anywhere. If we fire enough photons toward the left slit they will eventually hit every point on that fuzzy circle, just as would have happened if we fired trillions of photons all at once at the left slit. Now, imagine everything going into very, very slow motion, except we are still quick as a bunny at the controls of the experiment. We fire a single photon at the left slit, but being quick as a bunny while the photon is slow as a turtle, we lift the cover off of the right slit just before the photon passes through the left slit. Guess what happens? The photon never, ever hits the area of the the dark bands that showed up in Young's original experiment. We try firing photon after photon through the left slit, but if the right slit is open NONE of them lands in those dark bands.

Sheesh! What's going on here? When only the left slit was open, the photon could land anywhere, but just by opening the right slit, the photon is absolutely prohibited from landing on one of the dark bands! How does it know the right slit is open? What, did it spend time at the photon Starbucks before it took off getting instructions saying "right slit closed, anything goes, right slit open, be discreet"? In other words, are light photons conscious? Do they have morals and ethics (this would put them one step above the average Wall Street stock trader).

This is known as the wave/particle duality, and is a big conundrum for physicists even today. It turns out, what light is depends on how we look at it (does this remind you of looking at art?). If we set up an experiment to measure waves, as in Young's double slit experiment, we see waves. If we set up an experiment to measure particles, as in Einstein's photo-sensitive material experiment, we see particles. Light is very accommodating to our desires! Woo Woo; who knew?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Woo Woo part 3 : Timely Waving Particles

Einstein came up with all sorts of woo woo in his life, though he wasn't alone. Science during the 20th century has taken us so far out on a limb we can't even see the trunk anymore. Most of us don't really understand it, but we hear of Chaos Theory, String Theory, Bell's Theorem and more, and we know something very strange is going on.

Einstein's Theory of Relativity is taken for granted by now, but there are some very interesting implications that came out of it that most of us don't think about. For instance... one of the conclusions of the theory is that as an object accelerates time slows down for it. For objects within our rather humdrum speed range here on earth, this difference is negligible; if you speed down the interstate in your Harley trying to slow down the aging process you're wasting your time (pun intended). However, if you were a twin, and got onto a very fast rocket ship for a round trip to Mars, by the time you got back 20 years later you'd be younger than your sibling. Now, this is kinda woo woo, but there's more. The faster you go, the slower time goes, and as you approach the speed of light time slows to a crawl. At the speed of light time stops! Neither you nor I can possibly even approach the speed of light, but there is something that can - light. In fact, light always travels at the speed of light (I bet you knew that).

It takes about eight minutes for a photon of light to leave the sun and collide with the earth. But light, traveling at the speed of light, is not experiencing any time passing, since time stops at the speed of light. Therefore, a light photon, if it were conscious (and who knows?) would experience leaving the sun and colliding with the earth SIMULTANEOUSLY!!!!!! In fact, a photon would experience everything in its existence simultaneously, even if it started 13.5 billion years ago at the big bang and was still traveling today. Past, present, and future all at once.

Now that's woo woo, and I haven't even gotten to quantum physics yet (even Einstein thought quantum physics was woo woo, but it's formulations have been proven to work every time, and today it's accepted as a description of reality on the subatomic level). But all of this begs another question - why do I love woo woo, especially scientific woo woo? Woo woo doesn't pay the rent, or put food on the table, or predict the winner of American Idol, so why care?


To be continued....

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Woo Woo part 4 : Why Why Woo Woo?

Not too long ago I heard on the radio an interview with a neuroscientist about the significance of dreams. His explanation used a computer analogy - he stated that the mind has a trash bin like the one on your home computer desktop, and that dreams were the excess information that was being tossed into the trash bin to make room in storage for future information. According to this eminent scientist dreams were simply random flotsam and jetsam that, other than being part of the house cleaning process, had absolutely no significance. Beyond betraying that this is a man who pays very little attention to his dreams (and one who probably has little or no interest in woo woo), his assertion brought up a very interesting point about analogies and the assumptions they imply.

The analogy of the brain as a computer, albeit a very complicated computer, is one that most of us tacitly accept. We've all heard, and probably used, the analogy that our bodily functions and instinctual drives are governed in our brains by its hardware, while our cultural learning is a function of its software. Brain-as-computer is really just a rewording of the analogy that rose out of Newtonian physics, the universe-as-clockwork analogy. With the scientific revolution of Newtonian physics (actually, Newton built on Descartes, who built on Galileo, but we'll call it Newtonian physics to be brief) it was realized that everything works according to Universal Laws of Physics like force, momentum, and gravity. And, since these universal laws always hold, you can predict what is going to happen at any given time by having enough information to plug into the calculations derived from the laws. Like clockwork! If you have enough information you can predict the future, such as the exact time of a lunar eclipse 10,000 years from now, or what you're going to have for breakfast tomorrow. It's really amazing how well this works. The brain-as-computer analogy just says that a computer is a very complicated machine compared to a clock, and the brain is a very, very complicated gizmo...I mean, I mean computer....

So here's a guy in the 21st century, very smart, very educated, maybe a potential Nobel Prize Laureate, calling the brain a gizmo! With a desktop trash bin, no less! Very common sense actually, given the successes of neuroscience in probing the code of the brain/computer. However, this conclusion is based on the universe-as-clockwork assumption, which is tres, tres old school; I mean, the Age of Enlightenment was what, 400 years ago?

This is where woo woo comes in, namely the woo woo of relativity theory and quantum physics. We have the Newtonian Universal Laws, but those laws don't work on the subatomic level. Therefore, THEY AREN'T UNIVERSAL! On the subatomic level, the universe is not a clock, or a computer, or a gizmo needing a good mechanic. It is loaded with woo woo, and woo woo has the wonderful effect of making us examine our assumptions, because it shows us that they don't always work. And if they don't always work, we have to think, expand, and grow to absorb the woo woo into a coherent reality.... heaven forbid, we have to create new assumptions!

So let's get back to the neuroscientist playing with the brain gizmo, kinda like taking apart a TV set. Let's say he doesn't know anything about TV sets, but sees this image on the screen and hears sound coming out of the speakers. He's a curious guy, a tinkerer with a great mechanical mind, so he starts taking the TV apart. He discovers that turning one knob changes the image, another changes the loudness of the sound. Now he takes the knobs apart, and discovers all the wiring which goes to the screen and the speakers, and he concludes that the source of the images and sound must be inside these mechanisms. Then he pulls the power plug and everything stops because the TV is, well...dead. This re-enforces his view that the source of the images and sound are somewhere inside, since their existence is dependent on the TV being alive, so he keeps probing deeper, and deeper, and deeper, until the poor TV set is nothing but a chaotic pile of wires and glass and plastic strewn over the floor. He's charted diagrams, measured voltages and currents. He's figured out exactly how everything works, but he can't find the source of the images and sounds. He stands there scratching his head, figuring he must need better equipment or something (like a bigger computer). Poor guy. If he wasn't assuming that the source was inside the machine, if he realized that he was actually confronting woo woo, he might at some point intuit that the source came from a remote location.

In other words, is it possible that dreams aren't completely a function of the brain, but at least in part are remotely broadcast and the brain is simply a very sophisticated receiver? Is it possible the mind itself is not completely a function of the brain? Is it possible when we dream we are living in the land of woo woo? These are just some of the questions the woo woo of dreams begs.

That's the why why of woo woo.

Addendum: In my feeble attempt at explaining physics in this series of blogs I shamelessly ripped off Gary Zukov from his "The Dancing Wu Li Masters". If you have any interest in the new physics, this is an incredibly clear and engaging examination written for the non-scientist. Highly recommended.