It’s Turtles All the Way Down

Hindu turtle Earth
Chukwa supports the elephant Maha-pudma who holds up the world.

I think I first saw the expression “Turtles all the way down,” when I read Carl Sagan’s Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science. He recounted it as a conversation between a Western traveler and an Oriental philosopher.

I don’t have that book handy, but it is also told in Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time which is on a nearby shelf (I have both the nicely illustrated edition, and the “in a nutshell” versions which I found easier to understand).

A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the Earth orbits around the Sun and how the Sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever”, said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”

If you search a bit online, you’ll also find this called “The Infinite Turtle Theory” and find that it has found its way into a good number of cultural works. I myself have pinned the saying to several web pages I have online.

Although Hawking relates the anecdote more to point out something about ridiculous theories, others actually use it as a way to discuss an infinite regression belief about the origin and nature of the universe.

When I encountered it, I immediately thought of it as a variation of ancient beliefs that our world moves through the universe on the back of an animal. In many Native American creation myths, it is a turtle that holds up the world which is called “Turtle Island.”

I also found that it is similar to some Indian classical texts, including the myth that the tortoise Chukwa supports the elephant Maha-pudma who holds up the world.

The reference to Bertrand Russell may be from a 1927 lecture he gave titled “Why I Am Not a Christian” during which he said:

“If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument. It is exactly of the same nature as the Hindu’s view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant rested upon a tortoise; and when they said, “How about the tortoise?” the Indian said, “Suppose we change the subject.”

But you could go back to 1690 in John Locke’s “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” where he refers to an Indian who said the world was on an elephant which was on a tortoise “but being again pressed to know what gave support to the broad-backed tortoise, replied — something, he knew not what.”

A more modern allusion to it supposedly came from William James (father of American psychology) who supposedly had a conversation with an old lady who told him the Earth rested on the back of a huge turtle.

“But, my dear lady”, James asked, “what holds up the turtle?”
“Ah”, she said, “that’s easy. He is standing on the back of another turtle.”
“But would you be so good as to tell me what holds up the second turtle?”
“It’s no use, Professor”, said the lady, avoiding a logical trap. “It’s turtles, turtles, turtles, all the way!”

Ah yes,  we will never get to the bottom of some things.

Infinite regressions. What existed before the universe existed?  If God created the universe, what created God?

It’s turtles all the way down.

Rings in the Ice

Ice rings formed in a frozen puddle.

During my morning walk, I was taking a photograph of some ice formed from a puddle and noted the concentric rings. I know I’ve seen this before but today I wondered why they were there.

When I was home, I went online to find an explanation. As with too many things, a clear explanation was not found.

A seemingly scientific explanation is that the lines are a product of change in flow created by the prior ice sheets formed. This was describing rings found around obstacles such as rocks in a river. My example was just a puddle, but I read on. The surface current creates viscous friction, slightly melting the outer areas of the prior sheets in the process, making a ring line where the currents are going around the obstacles.

There was no flow in my puddle. No big rocks. So why rings?

There are not only ice rings but also ice discs, ice circles, ice pans, ice pancakes or ice crepes. All are a natural phenomenon that occurs in slow-moving water in cold climates.

Ice rings in a river

No clear explanation for my ice-ringed puddle but I do like the image it formed. It reminds me of a topographic map.

The way a topographic map shows elevation looks like the ice rings – the river rocks are like hills and mountains.

Planetary Intelligence

If I asked you about “planetary intelligence,” you might sarcastically say that there doesn’t seem to be very much of it. So, let me adjust your definition.

I came across the book, Ways of Being, which is about the different kinds of intelligence on our planet. That includes plant, animal, human, and artificial intelligence,

What does it mean to be intelligent? A typical answer to that from most people might be a discussion of people being “smart.” There might be some distinction between the knowledge ones acquires from reading and school and another kind of intelligence that seems to be natural or acquired outside school. But the focus would be on human intelligence.

Is intelligence something unique to humans? I’m sure that in centuries past, the idea that plants and even other animals could be “intelligent” wouldn’t be accepted. That has changed in the past 200 years and the much more recent advances in “artificial intelligence” have made the definition of intelligence itself much broader.

A dictionary might define intelligence as the ability to acquire and apply knowledge. Is that what plants and animals are doing when they adapt to changing ecosystems or communicate with each other? The intelligence of animals, plants, and the natural systems that surround us are being more closely studied and show us complexity and knowledge that we never knew existed.

The book’s author is James Bridle who is a technologist, artist, and philosopher who uses biology, physics, computation, literature, art, and philosophy to examine Ways of Being: Animals, Plants, Machines: The Search for a Planetary Intelligence. His goal is to find what can we learn from other forms of intelligence can make ourselves and the planet better. Maybe this new way of thinking about intelligence can even improve our technologies, societies, and even politics. Can we live better and more equitably with one another and the nonhuman world?

I listened to the book on audio and had to stop and rewind a few times. It can get pretty far out from what we normally think about intelligence.

One concept that stands out is “emergence.” That is a word used in many fields today. The shape of weather phenomena, such as hurricanes, are emergent structures. The development and growth of complex, orderly crystals within a natural environment is another example of an emergent process. Crystalline structures and hurricanes are said to have a self-organizing phase. Are they intelligent?

Water crystals forming on glass demonstrate an emergent, fractal process.

A few years ago, I read Bridle’s earlier book New Dark Age. It is indeed a dark look at the Internet, information overload, conspiracy theories, algorithms, and artificial intelligence. The latter seems to have grabbed hold of him and, though there is some optimism in the new book, his vision of AI is still dark.

While proponents of artificial intelligence still portray it as our friend or companion, AI often seems to be something to fear as it is strange in ways that seem like science fiction. Bridle doesn’t say it but AI sometimes seems to be more of “alien intelligence” than “artificial intelligence.” Not that it comes from other places in the universe, but that much like the sci-fi tales where aliens came to conquer our planet, AI might be an intelligence that will try to supplant us.

Okay, I’ll stop there because now I’m venturing into conspiracy theory land myself.

If it doesn’t matter, does it also antimatter?

Antimatter canister from ‘Angels and Demons’

I was thinking this past week about antimatter. If that seems a strange topic for a humanities person to be thinking about, then consider all of the fictional uses of antimatter in literature and popular entertainment.

Science fiction writers like Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Philip K. Dick are a few of the many who have played around with this scientific discovery. The British television series Doctor Who used it for a propulsion system. That sentient android, Data, from Star Trek: The Next Generation has a positronic brain that gives him powerful computational capabilities. In Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, the Illuminati try to destroy Vatican City using the explosive power of a canister of pure antimatter.

In physics, the idea that there may exist particles and matter that are exact opposites of the matter that surrounds us goes back to the late 19th century. It is difficult to grasp the idea that there are mirror-image anti-atoms for all our known atoms. Take that idea wider and there would be whole anti-solar systems.

And what if in those solar systems the matter and antimatter meet? They would annihilate one another.

In 1932, American physicist Carl Anderson discovered the first physical evidence that antimatter was more than just an idea. Anderson was photographing and tracking the passage of cosmic rays through a cloud chamber. That is a cylindrical container filled with dense water vapor, lit from the outside, and built with a viewing window for observers. When individual particles passed through the sides of the container and into the saturated air, they would leave spiderweb tracks of condensation. Each type of particle forms a uniquely shaped trail. Anderson noticed a curious trail like that of an electron, with an exactly identical, but opposite curve. An electron and a mirror image. Evidence of an anti-electron.

He took a photograph of the event. A particle is seen approaching the metal plate, and when it hits the plate, it loses energy but continues to curve in the direction appropriate for a positively charged electron. He later called it a positron.

He had discovered antimatter. The discovery earned him a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1936. he was 31, the youngest person to be so honored.

Antiprotons were discovered in 1955, and the antineutron was discovered the following year, and in 1985 scientists created the first anti-atoms. Other antiparticles, such as antiprotons and antineutrons, have been discovered.

These discoveries obviously led to thoughts about its practical use. But writers of fiction also speculated on how it could be used. Back in the 1940s, biochemist and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov used it for his fictional “positronic brain.” Made of platinum and iridium, this brain gave humanlike consciousness to the robots in his collection I, Robot.

Star Trek used it as the basis of high-energy propulsion systems. But the amount of antimatter so far created on Earth is well short of what would be needed to power any type of vehicle or spacecraft. According to an article at, all the antiprotons created at Fermilab’s Tevatron particle accelerator add up to only 15 nanograms. CERN has even less. Making 1 gram of antimatter requires approximately 25 million billion kilowatt-hours of energy and would cost over a million billion US dollars. No one has a canister full of it – except in fiction.

Matter and antimatter particles are produced as a pair and when they meet, they immediately annihilate each other, leaving nothing but energy behind. Doesn’t that mean that the Big Bang should have created and destroyed equal amounts of these particles? Why do we exist in a Universe made almost entirely of matter?

As far as I can find, physicists seem to think that there was one extra matter particle for every billion matter-antimatter pairs. But those physicists have yet to explain this asymmetry. They are also looking for antimatter left over from the Big Bang using the alpha magnetic spectrometer on top of the International Space Station.

Wrong Science

Science changes as new information is obtained. This should not surprise people – but it sometimes does surprise them. Although there are some “laws” of nature that seem pretty solid – this gravity thing seems pretty sure – other theories evolve or are found to be wrong.

Aristotle believed that Earth was the center of a small universe. In the illustration above of the Aristotelian Universe, Earth is in the center, the elements above, then the celestial spheres, and finally the firmament.

Galileo saw the fuzzy edge of the Moon in his crude telescope and he thought it was the atmosphere around the Moon. He thought the dark craters were oceans.

In biblical cosmology, the firmament is the vast solid dome created by God during his creation of the world. The Bible supported the idea that the universe was made by God for us and no one else.

Copernican heliocentrism is the astronomical model developed by Nicolaus Copernicus and published in 1543 which put the Sun at the center of the Universe. He didn’t conceive of a universe beyond the planets beyond our solar system. But he did see the Sun as motionless and that Earth and the other planets are orbiting around it in circular paths, modified by epicycles, and at uniform speeds.

Johannes Kepler formulated three laws of planetary motion, which have deeply influenced every astronomer since. He corrected Copernicus’s model of the universe. He was fascinated with mars. He thought there was architecture visible there and that it was the most likely other place for life in the universe. Kepler died in 1630 and spent his final years writing horoscopes for his living.

Martian canals depicted by Percival Lowell

In 1894, Percival Lowell, a wealthy astronomer from Boston, made his first observations of Mars from a private Lowell Observatory that he built in Arizona. He decided that there were canals there. He mapped hundreds of them. It was his belief that these straight lines were artificial canals created by intelligent Martians and were built to carry water from the polar caps to the equatorial regions. The canals were later found to be optical illusions, but Lowell published his book Mars, followed by Mars and its Canals in 1906 proposing that the canals were the work of a long-gone civilization. The canals theory gave H. G. Wells the idea to write The War of the Worlds in 1897, about an invasion by aliens from Mars who were fleeing the planet’s desiccation. At least Wells knew he was writing fiction.

It’s not all old-timers who make science mistakes. Neutrinos are subatomic particles that move very fast. An experiment in 2011 timed how long it took neutrinos to go from the CERN atom smasher near Geneva to a detector in Italy. Initial reports found that the neutrinos arrived 60 nanoseconds sooner than a beam of light would. Faster than the speed of light? Impossible! Even Einstein, long dead, took note. But then the following year the research team realized that a loose electrical cable knocked the experiment’s clocks out of sync, explaining the error. Nothing goes faster than the speed of light. That seems pretty solid too.

Science and Buddhism

Buddhist monks of Tibet10
I was able to get away with my family last week despite the madness of COVID and Omicron. I tried to stay off my phone other than to take photos of my little granddaughter.

Back home this week, I was cleaning out some files and came across an article I had clipped out of an issue of Wired magazine years ago about a study that showed that some Tibetan Buddhist practices have been “proven valid” now that the world of science finally had some technology that could “test” them. I’m sure Tibetans were thrilled.

In one experiment, subjects were asked to watch a video of two teams passing a ball. One team wore white shirts, the other team wore black, and the subjects were asked simply to focus on how many times players in white shirts passed the ball to each other. The little trick of the experiment was that there was also a man in a gorilla suit who walked on screen, waved at the audience, and walked off again. The subjects didn’t notice him.

I remember seeing a video of this at an education conference in 2000 (see video below). Buddhism was never mentioned. What’s the connection? The point of the experiment was to show that humans see what they are looking for, not what’s there. That is selective attention. It is also a very old Buddhist teaching.

In the article, they talk with some participants at a Science and the Mind conference in Australia where participants explored areas of connected interest between Tibetan Buddhism and modern science.

For example, a scientist using magnetic pulses tried to access the creativity of the non-conscious mind and altered states of consciousness. Tibetan meditation seems to do the same thing.

I love science but this is something scientists have been trying to do for a long time – prove, disprove or replicate ancient practices.

I wrote earlier about a technique for pain control called Thong Len that scientists can’t prove but that they admit seems to work. What science is unable to prove gets little attention.

Drug-based treatments for depression have not developed as far as we might hope and some scientists think Tibetans may provide a path to the solution.

“If you go to Dharamsala (in India, home of the Tibetan government in exile), you go up through the fog in midwinter and you come out in the bright sunshine, it’s like going to heaven. What strikes you immediately is the happy, smiling faces of the Tibetans, who don’t have much, have been terribly deprived, and yet they are happy. Well, why are they happy? “They work at it! They don’t take their Prozac in the left hand and pop the pill. Monks have been studied by Richard Davidson, they are very positive, they’ve got no material possessions, it’s a grind, it’s cold, they don’t have much food. But they are happy. They work at it.”

The Dalai Lama embraces science and has said that Buddhists can abandon scripture that has been reliably disproved by science. The Dalai Lama has even opened a school of science at his monastery in India saying that “…the Buddhist tradition [is] to try to see reality. Science has a different method of investigation. One relies on mathematics; Buddhists work mainly through meditation. So different approaches and different methods, but both science and Buddhism are trying to see reality.”