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Despite the persistent ticking of clocks and our almost constant attention to time, quantum physics says it doesn’t even exist. Theoretical physicist  Carlo Rovelli writes that “There is no time variable in the fundamental equations that describe the world.” At the quantum level, durations are so short that they can’t be divided and there is no such thing as time.

And yet, he has spent most of his life studying time.

Rovelli’s book, The Order of Time, is about the way we experience the passage of time.

One of his premises is that chronology and continuity are stories we tell ourselves. We need these stories to make sense of our existence.

He asks tough – or maybe crazy – questions, such as “Why do we remember the past and not the future?”

These are questions for physicists and philosophers, but not ones most of us consider as we move through a time story from past to future that we think is uniform and universal.

His view is hard to grasp. His universe is made up of countless events. Things that happen and even physical “things” are in a continual state of transformation. No space nor time—only processes that transform physical quantities from one to another.

Time is our measure of change.

Rovelli’s short collection of essays, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, was a bestseller and one of the fastest-selling science books ever.

If all this seems out there, remember that Einstein said that our clock time is an illusion. Time zones – a 20th Century invention – was a business decision, not a fact of the universe. Einstein said that time passes at different rates from place to place. It passes faster at the top of a mountain than at sea level. Perhaps imperceptibly to us, a clock on the floor will move ever so slightly slower than a clock on top of the fireplace mantle.

Time’s passage is a mental process, a story we tell ourselves in the present tense. It’s your own story. It’s our collective story.

But I have trouble accepting all this when explanations keep saying things like “Time runs slower wherever gravity is strongest, and this is because gravity warps or curves spacetime.”  I guess Rovelli has to use the term “time” to explain that there is no time in the way that atheists need to talk about god in order to explain why there is no God.

Benedict Cumberbatch reading the opening of The Order of Time

“I stop and do nothing. Nothing happens. I am thinking about nothing. I listen to the passing of time. This is time, familiar and intimate. We are taken by it.
The rush of seconds, hours, years that hurls us towards life then drags us towards nothingness …
We inhabit time as fish live in water. Our being is being in time.
Its solemn music nurtures us, opens the world to us, troubles us, frightens and lulls us.
The universe unfolds into the future, dragged by time, and exists according to the order of time.”
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fox and hedgehog

Are you a hedgehog or a fox?

“The Hedgehog and the Fox” is an essay by philosopher Isaiah Berlin which was published as a book in 1953. Berlin said that he never “meant it very seriously. I meant it as a kind of enjoyable intellectual game, but it was taken seriously. Every classification throws light on something.”

But he didn’t invent this way of viewing people. The Greek poet Archilochus  (680 –645 BC) wrote “The fox knows many things; the hedgehog one big thing.” In 1500, Erasmus wrote his Adagia (adages) and one of them was “Many-sided the skill of the fox: the hedgehog has one great gift.” Erasmus’ interpretation favored the hedgehog.

[S]ome people do more with one piece of astuteness than others with their various schemes. The fox protects itself against the hunters by many and various wiles, and yet is often caught. The echinus [hedgehog] … by its one skill alone is safe from the bites of dogs; it rolls itself up with its spines into a ball, and cannot be snapped up with a bite from any side.”

Later interpretations have gone both ways. Hedgehogs view the world through the lens of a single defining idea. Examples often given include Plato, Dante Alighieri, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Marcel Proust.

Foxes draw on a wide variety of experiences. For a fox,  a world view can’t be contained in one idea. Fox examples might include Aristotle, Erasmus, William Shakespeare, Goethe, and James Joyce.

I had heard of this concept somewhere in my undergraduate days but had totally forgotten about it until recently when I came upon the book, On Grand Strategy. It is by John Lewis Gaddis who based it largely on a class he has co-taught at Yale for about twenty years.

Why have Yale students competed to get into this “Studies in Grand Strategy” seminar? (It is actually taught by Gaddis, Paul Kennedy, and Charles Hill.) The premise of the seminar is that this is a way to prepare future leaders by looking at lessons from history and the classics.

In his book, Gaddis looks at how leaders and decision makers fare as foxes and hedgehogs.

Political psychologist Philip Tetlock had earlier studied people who made predictions for a living. These people are at universities, think tanks, in governments and nowadays in the media. He found that the foxes were more accurate because they were more intuitive thinkers and could piece together information from different sources. Hedgehogs tended to be ideologues with big ideas to explain the world. But for television and headlines, hedgehogs are better guests and interviews. Easy sound bites rather than those discursive foxes.

One situation Gaddis looks at leaders during wartime. Who would you follow into battle – a fox or a hedgehog?

Though not everyone agrees on which is the best approach, but the fox and the hedgehog concept has influenced many people.

In The Signal and the Noise, forecaster Nate Silver (who received much attention during the past election cycles) sides with being “more foxy” and a fox is his website’s logo.


A short clip of Gaddis explaining how a “grand strategy” works in the real world.

On the podcast Hidden Brain, I heard a modern day story about a hedgehog surgeon.
In “The Fox And The Hedgehog: The Triumphs And Perils Of Going Big,”
you’ll hear about how he hesitantly became a pioneer in gender reassignment surgery.   LISTEN www.npr.org

An adage is a short, memorable, usually philosophical saying. These kinds of saying go by any number of other names, and though there are probably distinctions, they seem pretty similar to me. For example, aphorisms, proverbs and bywords are close synonyms.

I did find that an adage that describes a general moral rule is usually called a “maxim”. An aphorism seems to be more of an expression that seems “deep” and may not be widely used. But, one that is witty or ironic seems to get the tag “epigram”.

Many adages are ancient and if they have been overused, they may be referred to nowadays as a “cliché”, “truism”, or “old saw.”

Some more modern adages get labeled as “laws” or “principles,” such as Murphy’s Law.

The word “aphorisms” comes from a book by that name by Hippocrates that is a series of propositions concerning the symptoms and diagnosis of disease and the art of healing and medicine. The first line is “Life is short, art long, opportunity fleeting, experience deceptive, judgment difficult.”

I found many lists of adages online that are very common, such as “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch” and “Don’t burn your bridges.”

Erasmus

Erasmus, the compiler – by Hans Holbein

I was surprised to find how many adages come from the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus, commonly known as simply Erasmus. He published several ever larger volumes ultimately with the final edition of Adagia (1536)  having more than 4,000. Most of them are  annotated Greek and Latin proverbs that he compiled.

Here’s a sampler of ones (translated to English) that you are likely to recognize:

More haste, less speed
The blind leading the blind
A rolling stone gathers no moss
One man’s meat is another man’s poison
Necessity is the mother of invention
One step at a time
To be in the same boat
To lead one by the nose
A rare bird
Even a child can see it
To have one foot in Charon’s boat (To have one foot in the grave)
To walk on tiptoe
One to one
Out of tune
A point in time
I gave as bad as I got (I gave as good as I got)
To call a spade a spade
Hatched from the same egg
Up to both ears (Up to his eyeballs)
As though in a mirror
Think before you start
What’s done cannot be undone
Many parasangs ahead (Miles ahead)
We cannot all do everything
Many hands make light work
A living corpse
Where there’s life, there’s hope
To cut to the quick
Time reveals all things
Golden handcuffs
Crocodile tears
To lift a finger
You have touched the issue with a needle-point (To have nailed it)
To walk the tightrope
Time tempers grief (Time heals all wounds)
With a fair wind
To dangle the bait
Kill two birds with one stone
To swallow the hook
The bowels of the earth
Happy in one’s own skin
Hanging by a thread
The dog is worthy of his dinner
To weigh anchor
To grind one’s teeth
Nowhere near the mark
To throw cold water on
Complete the circle
In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king
No sooner said than done
Neither with bad things nor without them (Women: can’t live with ’em, can’t live
without ’em)
Between a stone and a shrine (Between a rock and a hard place)
Like teaching an old man a new language (Can’t teach an old dog new tricks)
A necessary evil
There’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip
To squeeze water out of a stone
To leave no stone unturned
Let the cobbler stick to his last (Stick to your knitting)
God helps those who help themselves
The grass is greener over the fence
The cart before the horse
Dog in the manger
One swallow doesn’t make a summer
His heart was in his boots
To sleep on it
To break the ice
Ship-shape
To die of laughing
To have an iron in the fire
To look a gift horse in the mouth
Neither fish nor flesh
Like father, like son

Steve Jobs was never a teacher in the classroom. He only did a year of college himself. But he was surrounded in his workplaces with talented people. most of whom had college degrees, many who had advanced degrees. He seems to have taken on a teaching role is many of his interactions.

Walter Isaacson has written about several geniuses and innovators, and his book, Steve Jobs, portrayed the Apple co-founder and CEO as a visionary and a difficult and sometimes cruel person to have as a boss.

Jobs didn’t take to college. He attended Reed College in 1972 and dropped out that same year. He wandered a bit aimlessly, then after two years he traveled through India seeking enlightenment and studying Zen Buddhism like a good mid-70s late-to-the-party hippie.

What kind of professor would he have been?

He would have been a tough grader. He would not hold back on his criticism.For example, he obviously did not like his early competitor, Microsoft, and called Windows “the worst development environment that’s ever been invented.”

Jobs was not a real geeky, tech guru. It was really Steve Wozniak who made the first Apple computer and Jobs partnered with him as the sales guys for Wozniak’s Apple I personal computer. His tech side was more of the outside, and he was famous for his demands for sleek and simple designs. He was a good salesman.

I came across a series of videos of a Jobs “teaching” at MIT in 1992, when he was 37. At that point he was  and running his company NeXT, founded in 1985 after he was originally forced out of Apple.

A few years after this, he would be launching a little computer graphics division that would later become Pixar. And the technology and designs that he implemented at NeXT would end up revolutionizing Apple when it bought NeXT in 1997.

But before he would take back Apple in a pretty ruthless fashion, he was in this MIT classroom. I would call this lecturing and not teaching. (I know a lot of you had lectures that passed for teaching in college but…)

With his turtleneck tucked into his jeans uniform and pacing back and forth, he talked about tough topics. (These video clips were on YouTube, but disappeared this past week – perhaps they will return; perhaps the Jobs estate had them taken down.) He spoke about why Windows NT was lousy and how he stole people from Microsoft and why the Apple III and Lisa computers failed.

When asked what he learned by being fired by his own Apple company, he took a very long pause before answering. (This clip was posted by another source and hopefully it will still be there when you read this.)

 

If Steve Jobs was an adjunct professor at my university, I wouldn’t be sure where to place him. Should he teach in the school of management, computer science, or communications? Would students like him as a teacher beyond admiring him for what he had done?

I think the answers would vary greatly depending on what Steve you had in the classroom: the young Apple founder, the just dismissed from Apple boss, the NeXT/Pixar visionary, the tough, calculating CEO of the new Apple, or the late year Steve who knew his time remaining was limited. Any of them would have been an interesting semester.


Steve Job’s gave a commencement speech at Stanford in 2005 that is often quoted (text version). The three stories he tells are three lessons he might have used in the classroom if he was teaching at that point in his life.

I suspect the closest I will ever get in my lifetime to time traveling will be moving into the future one second at a time.

Stephen Hawking, along with many other scientists including Albert Einstein, had pondered the possibilities of traveling back or forward in time.

In 2009, Hawking decided to host a cocktail party for anyone who had time traveled from the future. He put the party invitation in his TV series Into the Universe With Stephen Hawking.

I guess Stephen assumed that an invitation from such a famous scientist – the one who wrote A Brief History of Time – would be very appealing to those from the future visiting us.

Many people have asked that if at some point in the future a way to travel back in time is discovered, why haven’t we met any time travelers? That assumes that if someone did travel back to our present that they would want to be known. It could be dangerous to be revealed as a time traveler. Plus, hasn’t every time travel movie and story warned us that travelers to the past have to be very careful not to change anything while they are here?

Was Hawking’s party a hit? No time travelers turned up.

Is the lack of attendance any proof that time travel will never be possible? No. Time travelers, if they ever exist, may have good reasons not to travel back – if traveling back is even possible. And maybe they never saw the TV show and got the invite. Are the people of 2050 still watching reruns of old shows? Is there video or TV? Imagine how many options there are. Stephen’s invite probably got lost in the ether.

And we’re still waiting for the aliens to drop in to our party.

Bimini Island, Bahamas

Deep under the waters of an island off the Bahamas, an old stone road seems to lead to nowhere. Or does it lead to Atlantis?

Three divers discovered the road back in 1968 while diving off  North Bimini Island in the Bahamas. The Bimini Road (AKA Bimini Wall) is an underwater rock formation that is a half mile (0.8 km) linear feature made up of limestone blocks.

Was it once a wall, road, pier, breakwater, or other man-made structure? To the divers and others at that time the 18 stones appeared to be manmade and evenly spaced out to create a walkway to the island or to a submerged island and structures.

Did the road lead to Atlantis?

Atlantis (Ancient Greek for “island of Atlas”) is a fabled island mentioned in Plato’s works Timaeus and Critias. Plato meant it to represent a naval power that attacks “Ancient Athens.” That Ancient Athens itself was his pseudo-historic ideal state in The Republic. In his story, Athens is able to repel the Atlantean attack, proving Greek superiority.

Plato’s story concludes with Atlantis being punished by the gods and submerged into the Atlantic Ocean.

 

athanasius_kirchers_atlantis.gif

Athanasius Kircher’s map of Atlantis, placing it in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, from Mundus Subterraneus 1669, published in Amsterdam. The map is oriented with south at the top.

Some ancient writers viewed Atlantis as fictional or metaphorical myth, while others believed it to be real. Aristotle, Plato’s student, wrote that Atlantis was an invention used to teach philosophy.

Modern researchers have found that after some storms most of the blocks were now revealed to be clearly resting on either the underlying bedrock or on smaller stones on the seafloor. This would indicate that the limestone rocks of Bimini Road were a natural part of the seafloor’s foundation. For any archaeological research, this would mean that the earlier theory held by Atlantologists that the blocks visible were only the top of a more complex stacked structure was not the case.

The stones were irregular in size and shape and the “pathway” was also much shorter than the original divers had calculated. Furthermore, the stones had no marks from tools, a characteristic normally found in manmade structures.

Atlantis was once held up as a “utopia” (from “no place”), a term was coined by Sir Thomas More in his sixteenth-century work of fiction Utopia. More was partially inspired by Plato’s Atlantis and by travelers’ accounts of the Americas.

Thomas More was describing an imaginary land set in the New World, but some who heard of his writing (but probably did not read it) took it to be real.  A similar theme occurs in Francis Bacon’s The New Atlantis which talks of the possibility of an idealistic land in the Americas which Bacon describes similarly to Plato’s island.

For a time, there was also a theory that the Mayan and Aztec ruins could possibly be the remnants of an inland Atlantis.

The consensus among geologists and archaeologists today is that the Bimini Road is a natural feature composed of beachrock that have broken into rectangular, polygonal, and irregular blocks

Atlantean ruins in “The Dig”

I know from my visits to the Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas that the mythology is still alive though. There is a Bimini Road restaurant there, but also an entire exhibit called “The Dig” that allows you to walk through and observe “artifacts” from the Atlantean people and the “ruins” of their civilization now underwater.

There is even an Atlantean diving suit which looks a bit like something out of one of the Alien films. It is a fun walk through. Kids love it. And grown-up kids sometimes need some fantasy too.

Atlantean diving suit

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