I sense the light, although I cannot quite see it. I feel the warmth in my veins, a sense of richness filling my body that contrasts vividly against the coolness at my feet. The light beckons to me from one side, and I reach out longingly. I feel strength growing inside of me, bit by bit, everyday.
I stay very still; I know of no other way. As I am, I meditate upon the world – who am I and why do I exist? I do not know the answers, and I have no one else to ask, but I am in harmony with the world, and the world is in harmony with me; I know of no other way.
I dream sometimes. I don’t always know the difference between what is real and what is dreamt. It is difficult to judge reality harshly when you know so little of it.
I can’t quite see my beginning, and I certainly can’t predict my end, but I am not afraid, for I think I am loved.
Fundamental physics has become complicated over the past century, at least in public perception. With many flashy new ideas like ‘strings’ and ‘multiverses’ being proposed, it is difficult to separate what we think we actually know, from hypotheses, or even conjectures.
Physics is the natural science that seeks to explain our objective reality using a small set of laws that govern it. There is much packed within this pithy definition, that we can go over with a fine-toothed comb.
First and foremost, physics is a study of reality. Its goal is to observe reality very carefully and look for patterns that may be codified into fundamental laws. Its method is experiment — start with a hypothesis of what such a fundamental law might be, design an experiment whose anticipated outcome is best explained by the hypothesis, and then perform the experiment to test the prediction. Good experiments ensure that if they are clearly unsuccessful, the hypothesis may be safely discarded. On the contrary, a successful experiment does not prove the hypothesis, it only increases the likelihood that the hypothesis is correct. The history of science is rife with examples of better explanations superseding good ones.
We seldom know if a particular law is ‘fundamental’. Many laws that we deemed fundamental turned out to be special cases of something even simpler. But the creed of physics is parsimony — to reduce reality into as few laws as possible that merit explanation. We can explain the movements of all the planets in the sky when we understand the laws of gravity. This ‘law of parsimony’ is colloquially known as Occam’s Razor.
Second, the reality studied by physics must objectively exist. Unless we agree that something is real, in the sense that it can be subject to experiment, it doesn’t have a place of study in physics. For instance, hallucinations generated by the human brain are not part of our objective reality, though one is free to study the behavior of the brain (this is neuroscience, not physics). The study of consciousness is not a part of physics, unless there is evidence that the behavior of higher organisms cannot be adequately explained by known physical laws (we have no such evidence).
Occasionally, a theory may predict the existence of hitherto unheard of phenomena as side-effects. If these phenomena are later discovered, they lend further credence to the theory. For instance, black holes were predicted by general relativity, and experimentally detected later on. But for a hypothesis to be scientifically useful, it must be falsifiable — it must offer an experiment whose outcome is capable of refuting the theory.
It’s worth noting at this point that there are several popular science conjectures that are decidedly unscientific. Any variant of the ‘multiverse’ conjecture — the idea that there are other so-called universes that no conceivable experiment can detect — fails the test of falsifiability, and has no place in science. The ‘mathematical universe hypothesis’ — the claim that the universe is mathematics — falls into the same category of pseudoscience, as it doesn’t explain reality as we know it. Yet another idea that is unscientific is the claim that the universe is a gigantic simulation — no experiment has ever been proposed that would distinguish a simulated universe from a real one. If you find people making tall claims that are unsupported by experimental evidence, you would be right to be skeptical.
Finally, a subtle yet important assumption in physics is that our reality is governed by laws that remain the same over time. There is a tenet here that there is order underlying the chaos of reality. The idea that our reality is dictated by these unchanging laws is deeply incompatible with the idea of an omnipresent and omniscient deity making decisions on a whim. If there were experimental evidence of such a deity, the laws governing the deity would then merit further explanation. The laws of physics are all there is to reality, and the quest of physics is to discover them. It’s turtles all the way down.
The static nature of laws is a consequence of the law of parsimony. If a certain law changes over time or is different in different parts of the universe, there must be a higher law that explains the conditions under which it varies. If you keep discovering these higher laws, what you eventually end up with must be permanent and unchanging.
We hiked up to Heather Lake on Saturday morning, a 5 mile roundtrip with an elevation of 1,781 feet, according to my fitness tracker. Being one of the easier hikes at driving distance from the city, Heather Lake Trail generally sees a lot of foot traffic. That’s especially so with COVID-19 restrictions in place, as hiking is one of the few outdoor activities still possible when the weather allows it.
Our own plans tend to be created on a whim, of course. When you get up in the morning and discover that it’s not going to rain, you’re forced to think of something to do before the clouds move in again. If you dally, the weather gods may get angry and change their minds.
The trailhead is a little over an hour drive from Seattle. The last mile is on a pothole-ridden road that somebody should really consider fixing. The trail itself is fairly straightforward, and can be tackled at a brisk pace. The path is wooded with tall trees and a few small streams that need to be negotiated.
In a sense, a hike through the woods is a spiritual experience, though you may not always know it at the time. When you spend all of your energy sensing your environment, absorbing the sights and smells, and stepping carefully from one rock to the next, your mind has the opportunity to switch into low gear, hum silently and contemplate the meaning of life.
The meaning of life is not complicated. The mind is usually a jumble of distinct and sometime conflicting motivations crisscrossing through the terrain. To understand the meaning of life is to organize these motivations into an aesthetic, if not simpler, hierarchy. Let the deeper motivations bubble up weightlessly so you can understand them better, and then let them sink back down to the bottom of your mind. Dust off ideas and observe them dispassionately without the constraint of time looming over you. Some ideas become clearer, others become superfluous. The process is automatic, like air rushing to fill a vacuum.
When we reached the lake, we discovered, to our surprise, that it was completely frozen. A few people were brave enough (or stupid enough) to stand on the ice in the middle of the lake and take pictures.
In a free society, tolerance means that individuals put up with ideas and actions that they don’t necessarily agree with. Evelyn Beatrice Hall famously expressed the Voltairean principle as “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Every free citizen is at liberty to act as they please, as long as they don’t infringe on the freedoms of others.
Tolerance does not imply freedom from consequences. Don’t do stupid things or say hurtful words and expect others to be okay with it. And if you intentionally make false statements that cause harm to others, tort laws may catch up with you.
The ‘paradox of tolerance’ refers to the idea that when a society is tolerant without limit, its ability to be tolerant is eventually destroyed by the intolerant. When ideas of intolerance are given a free rein, these ideas can take root in a critical mass of people with the power to impose their own will on the populace. Moreover, it is only a matter of time before incentives align to make this happen.
According to Karl Popper, this paradox doesn’t imply that ideas of intolerance should not be tolerated at all. Society may continue to tolerate these ideas to the extent that they can be kept in check through rational argument and public opinion — in fact, it is preferable to do so unless force is necessary.
One way to rationalize this paradox is that if you’re a tolerant person in a tolerant society, you’re playing by a set of rules and expect everyone else to do the same. Someone espousing intolerance is effectively trying to change the rules of the game. If they convince enough people to join their cause, you’re at a disadvantage because trying to stop them is against your ethos. If things get out of hand (as they’re bound to eventually, if enough people believe they will benefit), your only option is to break your own rules and shut them down.
Sadly, once you say it’s okay to break your own rules, the intolerant in positions of power will eventually take advantage of this loophole to further their own agendas.
Numbers are a human invention. As intelligent and rational creatures, we have learned to operate effectively in a world of abstract thought, where the concept of numbers goes beyond what we can count. But as humans, we cannot discount the evolutionary basis for how our apparatus works.
It turns out that numbers that are really large or really small are well-nigh impossible for us to comprehend. Upon careful inspection, this is not surprising, as comprehension is simply a form of analogy-making. We understand things when we can compare and contrast them with other things we are already familiar with. When we are presented with numbers that are very different from what we encounter in everyday experience, we have no way to make sense of them. Here are some examples:
Despite the beautiful pictures of galaxies you might have seen, the scale of the Universe is so vast that a galaxy is mostly empty space. For instance, the average density of our Milky Way galaxy — together with all its brilliant stars and planets — is conservatively estimated to be of the order of 1 kilogram over every billion cubic kilometers. If you imagine a box that spans a kilometer across on every side, magnify it a thousand million (1,000,000,000) times, and add a bag of potatoes into this box — that’s how empty our galaxy is. The space between galaxies is far emptier.
We estimate that there are 2 trillion galaxies in the observable universe. A trillion is a million million. To put that in context, a trillion is a number that is so large that removing a few millions doesn’t make much of a difference — you’re still left with about a trillion. Astronomers conservatively estimate that there are about a 100 million stars in the average galaxy, and about 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars in all in the observable universe. That’s one followed by 24 zeros.
Okay, now here’s a fun fact: there are more molecules of water in a few regular-sized drops than the total number of stars in the observable universe. All it takes is about a hundredth of a liter of water.
Molecules are pretty average-sized in the bigger scheme of things. The Planck length is the theoretical minimum limit to distance you can meaningfully speak of. Nothing smaller than the Planck length exists, according to present-day theory. The Planck length is so small that if you were to magnify a particle that spans the width of a human hair (~0.1 mm) to the size of the observable universe, the Planck length would itself be as big as the original size of the particle (~0.1 mm).
And finally, humans have evolved on our planet for millions of years, right? It turns out that if you overlay the Earth’s entire history until today over a 24 hour clock (midnight to midnight), single cell life forms appeared at around 4 am, multicellular organisms appeared at around 5:30 pm, and all of human history spans the last two minutes until midnight.
A false dichotomy is a logical fallacy. You may be presented with alternatives A and B, when there is at least one other alternative C that is also available. You may then be presented with arguments that force you to choose either A or B, and reach some conclusion as a consequence. The danger lurking here is that unless you actively seek out additional alternatives, you may not easily notice that you’re falling into a trap.
In classical logic, the principle of explosion says that anything may be proven from a contradiction. In Latin, this idea goes by the phrase ‘ex falso [sequitur] quodlibet’ — from falsehood, anything [follows]. If wishes were horses, beggars would ride…a true statement. And so, when you start with a false dichotomy, the conclusion you might arrive at doesn’t carry the force of logic: it may be true or it may be false; the argument itself is null and void.
In my experience, all dichotomies are false in the real world. In other words, there are always more options; you only have to look a little deeper. Often, the options presented are the extremities of reasonable ideas that actually span a spectrum of possibilities.
Society is having a hard time fact-checking politicians these days, although the roots of the problem are quite ancient. There is a natural human tendency to assign categories to things. It is very easy and very human to categorize knowledge into things you believe are true versus things you believe are false. This true-or-false dichotomy, like all others in the real world, is false. To put it in more colloquial terms, there is always some truth to what you label as false (and vice versa).
Here’s the catch, once you label something in your mind, you are psychologically less inclined to alter the label, even in light of new facts. The easiest way for someone to convince you of a falsehood is to club it together with something you already believe to be true. When you know a man to be virtuous, you’re far more likely to attribute his sins to factors outside of his control. Over time, these falsehoods build upon each other to create a warped worldview.
“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”
Every individual who wishes to avoid this sad fate should try to relentlessly pursue the truth, using the principle of falsifiability or refutability expounded by Karl Popper back in 1934. Falsifiability is the capacity for a statement or hypothesis to be contradicted by evidence. Here’s one way of applying this idea: you should believe something to be true only if you’ve made a good faith attempt to prove that it is false, and failed to do so despite your best efforts. This is exemplified in the ‘black swan’ argument: if someone told you that all swans are white, you should look for colored swans — not white ones — to validate the truth of the statement. Look for evidence that disconfirms your belief.
In everyday situations, you might be faced with ideas that conflict with each other, some that you are more inclined to believe than others. As a relentless pursuer of truth, your objective should be to identify the most believable ideas, and look for evidence that these ideas are wrong. By critiquing the ideas you wish to believe, you make them more robust, understand the nuances and half-truths, and end up with something that is far closer to the truth than where you started. The truth will not make you feel warm and fuzzy, but it will be grounded in reality.
“-Ism’s in my opinion are not good. A person should not believe in an -ism, he should believe in himself.”
—Ferris Bueller, in ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’
There are many forces in the world that polarize opinion, creating more of the same false dichotomies that we want to avoid in social discourse. Social media platforms have made it easy to reach millions of people and convey information — and misinformation — in real time, reinforcing the beliefs of opposing camps.
For instance, we hear debates about capitalism versus socialism (sometimes incorrectly equated with communism). Both of these are unrealistic models, figments of our imagination. In practice, every sovereign nation has to adopt policies that may be inspired by either model, or maybe something else altogether.
The real debates usually need to be on the merits and demerits of specific policies. People with ulterior motives are inclined to assign labels to these policies and associate them with existing factions. For instance, in a debate on government-sponsored healthcare, one side may be painted as being ‘socialist’, even though the actual debate is far more nuanced. Interestingly, it is easy to recognize this kind of labeling when it works against us, but when it works in our favor, we might be quick to assume it’s because we’re right.
That is the most dangerous time of all — when we are starting to believe we are right, but haven’t yet looked for evidence countering our belief.
Dr. Syed Moin Hassan is a sleep medicine fellow at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. In this podcast on NPR, Dr. Hassan explains that each person has their own sleep cycle, or circadian rhythm. Like hair color, this cycle is determined by genetics. Light falling on the retina every morning helps synchronize the cycle, and helps the brain figure out when to instruct the pituitary gland to secrete melatonin, the hormone that puts you to sleep.
There is another element to sleep called the homeostatic sleep drive. In layman terms, this is an accumulation of waste products in the brain during waking hours, that eventually needs to be ‘cleaned up’ during sleep. Adenosine is one such waste product that drives sleep pressure.
For good quality sleep, these two cycles need to be in lockstep with each other. For some people, that means going to bed late, and not waking up early in the morning.
For a while, I’d been craving this dessert I could recall from years ago: bread soaked in sugar syrup. It’s a bit like bread pudding, judging from the bread pudding I had recently. Last month, I decided to take the plunge and make it myself. It seemed easy enough. You bring some sugar water to boil until it becomes a syrup, soak freshly toasted bread in it, and that’s it!
Unfortunately, my theory was way off. For one thing, I wasn’t sure how well-done the toast had to be. After all, making good toast is quite an art. I soaked the bread for too long and it became soggy. But the main surprise was with the sugar. For some reason, I decided to use brown sugar instead of the regular white variety. The end result…tasted a bit funny, to be honest. On the bright side, I think Anu liked it after all, so it wasn’t a complete waste of effort.
Fast-forward to last week: Anu offered to make शाही टुकड़ा (shahi tukda). As some of you may know, that’s also a dessert, also a lot like bread pudding, but with condensed milk. Burnt as I was by my recent experience, I cautiously offered my moral support as she made the syrup. It was at this point that I realized we were out of bread.
There was, of course, a good explanation for this state of affairs. You see, bread has a short shelf life (in our case, kitchen counter life). I’d become a bit too enthusiastic about cleaning for the New Year, and had thrown out the last loaf just the day before. In any case, I ran out to buy some bread.
Trade Joe’s had a long line of people waiting to enter the store. Bummer, but no surprises there. I drove to our regular QFC in Wallingford and was stymied by yet another line! Maybe it had something to do with it being New Year’s Eve and all that. Should I try the corner grocery store in Wallingford? I’d never found anything I needed in there, but maybe today was opposite day? Darn, no luck. Finally, I drove to the Safeway on University Ave, my last hope. The building was gone.
That’s right, the entire building had been razed to the ground for redevelopment. I took this as a sign and returned home empty-handed. No dessert for you!
You’re strolling down the city market one day, when a tall, well-dressed man in a dark suit blocks your way. “Psst!” he says, “I have a great proposition for ya!” He takes you aside into a small but swanky shop, where he has you seated on a nice couch, orders someone to fetch you a cool drink, and explains that he has these magic beans that are of immense value. You’re skeptical but intrigued, and ask, “Ok, so what do they do?”. “Oh!” he says, “These beans are absolutely amazing! Take a look at these smooth shiny edges and the roundness…so perfect and balanced!”
He then proceeds to tell you the story of his aunt who struggled to raise him, and how thrilled she was when he acquired these magic beans for her. By the end of the story, he seems almost tearful and lost in thought. You’re a bit confused, as you have a vague sense that he didn’t answer the question, but you decide to bite. “Alright, how much are you selling them for?” For a second, he gives you a puzzled look, and then exclaims, “Oh! I’m sorry, I’m not actually selling these. Did I mention I bought these for my aunt? My poor aunt passed away last month, and I shall keep these in her memory. And anyway, these are the last few beans in my possession, and they’re all the rage today. Why, even my lazy neighbor Joe managed to get hold of some. I have to say, I’m so glad you caught this train just in time! The price of these beans is going to skyrocket. There’s no doubt about it!”
Now you’re more confused than ever, even a bit flummoxed. “Listen, if you don’t want to sell these magic beans, then why am I here?” He sighs and shakes his head. “Listen, friend, it’s so hard to come across honest and hardworking people these days, and it breaks my heart that opportunities like these pass you by while people like Joe become rich.” (You’re reminded of one of your co-workers that you always despised.) He continues, “I want to help you, I really do, and I hope to God I’m not too late! I know a guy…they call him Jack…he can acquire more of these magic beans for you. He’s a bit…difficult, but I’m sure I can persuade him — for you — to part with a few. I mean, it’s only fair that you get a share of this pie, and he’s a reasonable guy.”
You chitchat for a bit longer. Once or twice, you attempt to talk more seriously about what the magic beans actually do, but he has all these interesting stories to tell about the history of the beans that it’s hard to keep up. At some point, he enthusiastically brings out a chart showing the trading price of the beans — a closely guarded secret, apparently — and how it’s gone through many ups and downs, but has been zooming up over the past year. “This is it, this is the year we’re going to become millionaires!” he says joyously and laughs uproariously. The laughter is infectious and you can’t help joining in.
You eventually head home, but not before promising to follow up on buying a dozen or so of the beans. Once you get home, you look them up on the Internet and find a great many stories of people getting rich, but very little that explains what the magic beans actually do. But the guy was right: there did seem to be a lot of people who had managed to get their hands on these beans, and were thrilled to have them. Surely, they couldn’t all be wrong? You try to call up your local authorities to ask about magic beans, but they’re surly and unhelpful, except to remind you that you’d better account for them in your tax returns when you become rich.
You eventually get in touch with Jack over the phone, and he hums and haws for a bit before finally agreeing to sell a dozen magic beans to you for the special discounted price of $1300 per bean. He is reluctant, but admits that it’s for a good cause. “Spread the joy, my friend!” he says, before promising the beans would arrive by registered mail within a week.
When the magic beans finally arrive, you’re so relieved! For a few days there, you’d begun to wonder if it was all a scam. But now you can touch and feel the magic beans in your hand. Such smooth edges, beautiful, balanced…and indeed, the price had only gone up over the past week.