Monthly Archives: February 2016


Photo by Bruce Munro

by Frank Wilczek

Why is it so hard to accept, intuitively, that life and mind can emerge from matter? A big part of the answer, I think, is that we have little or no immediate experience of how physical systems represent information. Computers, we know, store and manipulate information in enormous patterns of 0s and 1s. But those patterns are based on arrangements of electrons, microscopically small and deeply hidden from the user interface.

Our brains store and manipulate information in patterns of electrical activation. Most neurobiologists accept that those patterns are the physical embodiment of mind—but they are encased in our skulls, buried in gelatinous brain tissue. We can’t scrutinize them or feel them directly.

One evening last month I had an extraordinary experience at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, where I viewed an installation called “Fields of Light” by Bruce Munro. The giant artwork used thousands of small spheres of light, strewed over several acres on the desert hills. I wandered among them. Their soft light pulsated, asynchronously, every few seconds, and modulated more slowly through a range of colors. As soon as some pattern became recognizable, a new, slightly different one began to replace it. The pace of that dynamic, comparable to the rhythm of heartbeats or of breathing, gave it an organic feel.

Metaphors connecting light to thought abound. We speak of “flashes of insight” and “bright ideas,” and cartoonists depict these as thought-balloon lightbulbs, emanations from the clever person’s head. Visual representations of communications networks or brains also often use flashes of light to indicate activity.

That night, for me, all those analogies and metaphors came together. In the ever-changing landscape of possibilities, I felt I’d gotten an inkling of what thought looks like. I had the uncanny sense that I was walking through my own mind, or at least a good model of it. I’ll never again think about brains, or myself, in quite the same way.

A great living physicist, Philip Anderson, famously asserted, “More is different.” When large numbers of units act together, fundamentally new structures and phenomena emerge. In one hierarchy, atoms combine to make semiconductor crystals, transistors and computing machines; along another trajectory, they combine to make biomolecules, nerve cells and brains. In these examples, it leaps out: Lots more is very different.

Mr. Munro’s light show embodied, in tangible form, the abstract mathematical concept of a “combinatorial explosion.” Let’s say one light can be either on or off. Then a system of two lights can be in four states: on-on, on-off, off-on, off-off. And a system of merely 30 lights, each of which might be on or off, supports over a billion possible states. When we have thousands of lights, each of which can exhibit a range of colors and brightness, and add the element of time, the explosion of potential far outstrips Carl Sagan’s “billions and billions.” It gives concrete, visceral meaning to the “lots” in “lots more.”

“Fields of Light” was intended as a work of art, not a scientific model. But its psychological power suggests the potential of a new form of visualization—visualization on a grand scale, involving dynamic, immersive environments, as a tool for teaching and understanding.

Using magnetic resonance imaging, positron emission tomography, fluorescent proteins and other technologies, neurobiologists have gathered a lot of objective information about flows of thought and emotion. There’s an opportunity here: Wouldn’t it be marvelous to bring all that information together and scale it up to produce an accurate, dynamic model of mind that is an enthralling, mind-expanding experience too?

In the famous Stargate sequence toward the end of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” astronaut Dave Bowman, approaching Jupiter, finds a strange monolith. When he touches its surface, he activates it. The monolith engulfs him in a swirling vortex of multicolored light, and his mind is altered. Dave Bowman’s expanded consciousness prepares him for further revelations, and at last a glorious rebirth. Maybe those monolith builders were on to something.

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Dr. Wilczek, winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics, is a professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His most recent book is “A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature’s Deep Design.”

This article appeared in The Wall Street Journal

by Frank Wilczek

The absence of an empirically identifiable meeting point between the non-physical mind and its physical extension has proven problematic …

— article on Mind-body Problem, Wikipedia

Philosophers love to invent thought experiments, imagining mad situations that shake up slumbering dogmas. One of their favorite targets is your everyday sense of identity. Are you sure that you are what you think you know that you are—a mind firmly attached to a specific, physical human body? Maybe you’re really a brain in a vat or a program running in some vast computer, mistaking a simulation for reality. Or maybe you’re actually your spouse, having a dream of role reversal. How would you know?

Those issues came to life for me last December, when I had an unforgettable experience of being in two places at once. So will you, very likely—soon, and then often. Routine out-of-body experience doesn’t require esoteric spiritual discipline, drugs or psychosis. It is a coming, practical technology.

My story: I had sent effusive, genuine regrets to the organizers of last year’s Nobel Week Dialogue in Sweden, a day-long, high-level science conference run by the Nobel Foundation’s media arm, saying I couldn’t attend due to scheduling conflicts. The dialogue’s theme was “The Future of Intelligence,” a long-term obsession of mine, and it looked to be a grand event.

The organizers in Gothenburg came back with “an interesting opportunity”: I could participate in a new way, without leaving my home in Cambridge, Mass., by using the BeamPro platform. From my desktop, I would control a large robot—roughly human-sized, though not humanoid. The robot would display live video and audio feeds, so people could see and hear me. It would also support typed messages. I too would be able to see and hear, using sensors attached to the robot and sharing its perspective. Naturally, I jumped at the chance.

My first voyages were tentative. I looked at the robot’s upper screen to decide where to go. Then I looked at the lower screen to check for obstacles, swiveled and slowly inched forward. Rinse, lather, repeat. At this stage, I was very aware that I was sitting at home, at a terminal in Cambridge, operating a machine in Gothenburg.

But after just a few minutes, I gained confidence. The process became fluid. Soon I navigated effortlessly and moved quickly. I could focus on the remote environment, taking in its sights and sounds. I was there.

A few early arrivers—a group of students visiting from Malaysia—entered the discussion area. I strolled up and introduced myself. The conversation began awkwardly. Usually, body language conveys lots of basic information, such as whom we’re addressing and whether a message has been understood. At first, I had to attend consciously to a checklist: I’d turn toward the person I wanted to address, somehow make eye contact (doing a little jig, if necessary, to get their attention) and type out, “Am I loud enough?” But in sustained conversation, the strangeness of the situation quickly faded, and we got to a meeting of minds. Several of us went for a stroll together, followed by an orgy of selfies.

Then, in an adjoining auditorium, the session proper began. I was scheduled to make a surprise appearance. It was dark backstage and (as is the way of these things) chaotic. On cue, I entered through a long narrow runway, demarcated by dozens of dazzling lights, moving at a good clip for dramatic effect. I had the uncanny but exhilarating feeling that I was living inside a videogame. I made it onstage, and the audience got a glimpse of the future of robotics, communication, and reality.

I have seen the future, and it almost works. With more powerful sensors and actuators, out-of-body experiences will become even more compelling. It is easy to imagine brilliantly attractive possibilities: immersive tourism to anywhere, anytime, without needing to leave home. Fragile human bodies are ill-suited to deep-space environments, but human minds will experience them richly.

We’ll need to rethink how we answer the question “Where am I?”—and then, inevitably, “What am I?”

Dr. Frank  Wilczek, winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics, is a professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His most recent book is “A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature’s Deep Design.”

This article appeared in The Wall Street Journal

round he threw his baleful eyes

round he threw his baleful eyes

by Richard Nilsen

Dimitri Drobatschewsky was the most erudite man I ever knew. He spoke, wrote and read in German, French, and English. Born in Berlin and raised mostly in Luxembourg, his French and German were native, down to idiom, argot and accent. He was also conversant in Spanish, Italian and Polish (at least, he said, he knew several dirty jokes in Polish). 

Dimitri felt that French was the most beautiful language, by the sounds it makes in your mouth. But for Dimitri, the best poetry was in German, and further, the best poet he ever read was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. For this, I had to take his word.

Because I don’t read German, and when I approach Goethe in translation, he sounds earthbound, even banal. 

“Röslein, Röslein, Röslein rot,

Röslein auf der Heiden.”

“Little rose, little rose, little red rose

Little rose of the heath.”

It sounds better set to Schubert’s music, but still, in English, the words are a touch sappy, and the sentiment pedestrian.

“You have to read him in German,” Dimitri said. “The sound of words, the language is unbelievably beautiful.”

So, I’m afraid Goethe is closed to me. I’ve read Faust several times in several translations, and it never seems to quite get airborne, yet everyone who knows the original feels it is one of the greatest works of literature ever, and that Goethe is the equal of Shakespeare. 

I have the same problem with Quintus Horatius Flaccus, or Horace in English. But in English, his poetry is flat as yesterday’s ginger ale. “You have to read him in Latin,” says my friend Alexander, whose degree is in Classical languages. “In Latin, he is truly exceptional — lapidary perfection.”

Again, I have to take his word for it. Shakespeare may have had “small Latin and less Greek,” but my Latin is even smaller than the Bard’s.

There are those who hold that all literature is untranslatable, that you have to read it in the original language, and while I concede that you can never get all of a poem in a translation, nevertheless, I feel there is a class of work that functions perfectly well shapeshifted. 

I can read my Homer not only in English, but in multiple translations, from Chapman to Pope to Fitzgerald to Fagles and I am sucked in by the poetry every time. There is something beneath the words that sweeps us along. It may very well be better in Greek, but it’s the best thing I’ve ever read even in English. I reread the Iliad once a year, and try to find a new translation each time. (I read the Odyssey, too, and I especially love the translation by T.E. Lawrence — Lawrence of Arabia. Who knew?)

The same thing happens with Dostoevsky. I’m sure it’s better in Russian, but even a good translation moves swiftly and powerfully and I am rapt by the story and moved by the humanity.

It can make a difference which translation you read. I am told by those who know, that the Scott Moncrieff translation of The Remembrance of Things Past is closest to the quality of Proust’s French, yet I find his English stuffy and outdated. The newer translations — still in progress by a range of translators for Viking (Swann’s Way is translated by Lydia Davis) — is easier to digest and flows with the quickness that ensures pleasure in the reading.

Constance Garnett gave us English versions of what must be every Russian novel ever written. She was a factory. And her versions are still the most widely read. But the more recent by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky are much easier going. The duo now seem to be challenging Garnett also for the shear number of volumes converted.

This all raises the question, however, of why Homer can be read in translation and Horace cannot. And the reason, I believe, is that greatness in writing comes on two essential levels: content and style. That is, how deeply it connects with our human-ness, on one hand, and on the other, how deeply it connects with its medium. This is not an either-or situation; there should always be awareness of both sides. But in practice, one side or the other tends to predominate. The more it is the universal connection with life and experience that we read, the easier the literature can travel. The more it is the words themselves, the more insular the audience.

It would be difficult to illustrate this dichotomy if we try to look at examples of foreign literature translated to English; we would need to be conversant with the original language to see how it morphs in the conversion. But consider attempting to translate several English authors into some other language.

Shakespeare tends to travel well. His plays are valued in many lands and many languages. There are famous examples ofMacbeth in Swahili, of Hamlet in Russian, and dozens of operatic versions in Italian, French and German. They all pack a wallop. And Shakespeare is loved in all those languages by their native speakers.

On the other hand, how in hell can you translate John Milton into French? You can tell the story of Paradise Lost, sure, but how can you convey the special organ-tone quality of his language.

“Round he throws his baleful eyes.”

Translate it into French and it comes out as the equivalent of:

“He looks around him malevolently.” Not the same thing, all the poetry is gone out of it. And it wasn’t Tom Brady who deflated it.

Or: “When I consider how my light is spent.”

John Milton

John Milton

It is only in English that the word “spent” has the two meanings: a spent taper; or money (or life) spent. The word in the opening of his sonnet “On his Blindness” has a nimbus of ambiguity about it. The primary meaning is that the light has gone out in his eyes, but he spreads the halo out from the word “spent” by following it up with several other financial words: “the one Talent which is death to hide” where a talent is also a biblical monetary denomination, and brings to mind the New Testament story of the servants and the talents, and the poor servant who is “cast into the outer darkness, where there will be much weeping and gnashing of teeth.” And then there is, “present my true account,” and its hint of double entry bookkeeping. It is this expansiveness in language that is the key to Milton’s greatness. He is large; he contains multitudes. But they are bound in English, anodized, as it were, not separable. How do you work that magic in French? Or German? Or Japanese?

These things are untranslatable, and hence, Milton can never have the global currency of Shakespeare. 

Or consider translating Chaucer from his own time to ours. The poetry — The sound of the words, phrases, sentences and stanzas — cannot hypnotize us as the original does. Yes, we get the sense, but we miss the art.

“And smale fowles maken melodye, that slepen all the night with open ye.” 

Pablo Neruda

Pablo Neruda

If I turn to a poet I love very deeply, and whose language I can parse, it survives translation very well. Pablo Neruda’s Spanish is so transparent, that the ideas embodied in it are clearly seen in any lingo. It is that Neruda’s primary concern in his poetry is not language, but experience. They are real pears and plums in his poetry, real life and death, real love, real sex, real toes and real stones. The poetry is about the things of this world, and not the way we express them.

The poetry is highly wrought, and in Spanish, there is a linguistic layer Neruda also cares about, but the power of the poems come from Neruda’s connection with his own life, his own experience, and that it is possible to share in any language.

Quiero conocer este mundo,” “I want to know this world,” he says in his Bestiario/Bestiary.

“The spider is an engineer,/ a divine watchmaker./ For one fly more or less/ the foolish can detest them:/ I wish to speak with spiders./ I want them to weave me a star.”

There is behind language, a world. You can concentrate on the language, or on the world. It is easy to be lulled into forgetting the difference, to think that words describe the world, and that the best language is the most accurate lens on the things of this world — este mundo — but they are not the same, but rather, parallel universes, and what works in words does not necessarily explain how the world functions. In reality, there are no nouns, no participles. There is only “is.” Can you get at that “is” through words. We try. And we try again.

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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard and his wife moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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