The most radical thing about quantum mechanics

It’s not that randomness is built into physical quantities, or that energy must jump from one level to another without taking on values in between. The most radical thing is inter-connectivity.

The electron over here and the electron over there are not separate particles. They are one and the same particle, popping up in different but highly-correlated instances.

Isaac Newton created the old physics by separating foreground from background, and proposing equations that govern the behavior of one particle at a time. But in QM, no such separation is possible. There is one equation for the entire universe.

Of course, the one equation is complex beyond all imagining, and impossible to even think about how it might be solved. The best that we have been able to do is to fall back on separation, and solve approximations to the equations, which pretend that particles are separate.

The randomness for which QM is so famous is one consequence of this approximation. Leaving out the rest of the universe and calculating about one particle at a time, we find that the particle seems to be subject to ‘random’ influences that are not really random at all, but reflect the fact that we’ve left out the rest of the universe.

Physicists forget that they are solving approximations. They treat randomness as if it were an essential part of QM, and they solve the separate version of the equation, because that is what they know how to solve, not because they have any reason to believe that the approximation is valid.

Philosophers and just plain people who tell you that mind=brain, that after death there is only oblivion, that self is separate, that consciousness is a kind of complex calculation — people who say these things invoke Science in support of their beliefs. The Science that they are talking about is 19th Century physics. Quantum physics supports humility in our scientific worldview, and even suggests a picture consistent with mysticism.

— Josh Mitteldorf

1 December 2013

Another step toward quantum computing

Quantum computers will be able to solve some ordinary problems so much faster than ordinary computers that it will make possible a new relationship to information.  The may also make possible the solution of quantum equations that are far too complex to approach with the fastest conventional computers we can conceive.

Last week, a major step was taken in solving the engineering problem of preserving a coherent quantum state long enough to read, write and manipulate it.

read more

2 December 2013

Just asking...

What would be the texture of experience for a child raised from birth with a reverence and mystery in each moment, rather than education toward mastery and competence?


3 December 2013

One man’s idea of intimacy

Es handelt sich in der Ehe für mein Gefühl nicht darum, durch Niederreißung und Umstürzung aller Grenzen eine rasche Gemeinsamkeit zu schaffen, vielmehr ist die gute Ehe die, in welcher jeder den anderen zum Wächter seiner Einsamkeit bestellt und ihm dieses größte Vertrauen beweist, das er zu verleihen hat.

Ein Miteinander zweier Menschen ist eine Unmöglichkeit und, wo es doch vorhanden scheint, eine Beschränkung einer gegenseitigen Übereinkunft, welche einen Teil oder beide Teile ihrer vollsten Freiheit und Entwicklung beraubt.

Aber, das Bewusstsein vorausgesetzt, dass auch zwischen den n ä c h s t e n Menschen unendliche Fernen bestehen bleiben, kann ihnen ein wundervolles Nebeneinanderwohnen erwachsen, wenn es ihnen gelingt, die Weite zwischen sich zu lieben, die ihnen die Möglichkeit gibt, einander immer in ganzer Gestalt und vor einem großen Himmel zu sehen.

Rainer Maria Rilke, born this day in 1875

The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust.  A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development.  But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.

—tr Stephen Mitchell

4 December 2013

Oldest human DNA

Scientists have found the oldest DNA evidence yet of humans’ biological history. But instead of neatly clarifying human evolution, the finding is adding new mysteries.

The DNA from Spain most closely matches previous analyses of Denisovan man, found in Siberia

The mismatch between the anatomical and genetic evidence surprised the scientists, who are now rethinking human evolution over the past few hundred thousand years. It is possible, for example, that there are many extinct human populations that scientists have yet to discover. They might have interbred, swapping DNA. Scientists hope that further studies of extremely ancient human DNA will clarify the mystery.

—from a Science Times article by Carl Zimmer

5 December 2013

Set aside quiet time to listen and appreciate Górecki’s music

Listen to Lento, Mvmt II from Henryk Górecki’s signature work, his Symphony #3, sung by Dawn Upshaw.

Górecki would have been 80 years old today.

6 December 2013

I ain’t a-marchin anymore

Political leaders love war. It enhances their power.

Corporations love war. It enhances their bottom line.

But people like you and me — not so much. Bad for our health.

Americans want no part of war. Even the “good war” was engaged by America only after Roosevelt taunted Japan, then let down his defences and sacrificed a big chunk of his navy, just as a grotesque publicity stunt, a good president committing mass murder and engaging in mass deception because he thought he knew better than the American people what is good for us.

Since the end of the Cold War, it has become harder to justify war, and certainly impossible to get the “consent of the governed”. The excuses for war are becoming more and more patently absurd.

Not incidentally, war is illegal. We are fast approaching a day when the people won’t put up with it.

7 December 2013

‘What is now proved was once only imagined.’ – Wm Blake

Blake got one thing right — it is vitally important to expand the scope of the imagination. But even so, our imaginations inevitably fall short. The world we discover is far stranger and more wondrous than what we are capable of imagining.

How often do we limit our perceptions by what we believe? When we expand to look for what we can imagine, we find there is so much more, so much more...But we must do more. We must not expect our imaginations to do much better than our beliefs in preparing us for what we will eventually discover, if only we open our minds and the gateways to our minds.

— Josh Mitteldorf

8 December 2013

“Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. YOU can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.”

— Nelson Mandela

9 December 2013


What is the caterpillar doing inside that chrysalis? If you’re like me, you probably think that its body is re-formed, a bit at a time, in a continuous process of old cells being destroyed here and new appendages spouting out over there.

It turns out that’s not the way naturer has decided to do it.

First, the caterpillar digests itself, releasing enzymes to dissolve all of its tissues. If you were to cut open a cocoon or chrysalis at just the right time, caterpillar soup would ooze out. Certain highly organized groups of cells known as imaginal discs survive the digestive process. Before hatching, when a caterpillar is still developing inside its egg, it grows an imaginal disc for each of the adult body parts it will need as a mature butterfly or moth—discs for its eyes, for its wings, its legs and so on.

read more from Scientific American

It can make a biologist’s head spin to think how this process might have evolved. Evolution is theorized to take place via small, random increments. You can imagine small incremental changes adding up to a second stage of life if the second stage grows incrementally out of the first; but it’s not so easy to imagine if the first stage is dissolved into a chemistry set for making the second.

Another finding to stretch your scientific imagination: When caterpillars were trained with electric shock to avoid a particular smell, the moths that they became remembered the smell (2008 narticle in PLoS One). We like to think of learned behaviors as being encoded in synapses in the nervous system, but the tiny brains of these caterpillars are completely dissolved during metamorphosis, and a new brain is formed. So in what form is the memory preserved and passed on?

Possibly completely unrelated, but this reminds me of migrating Monarch butterflies that fly up to 2000 miles to return to the tree where their great great great great grandmothers overwintered 8 months earlier.

10 December 2013


Listen to the King Lear Overture of Hector Berlioz, born this day in 1803.

11 December 2013


There’s just no accounting for happiness,
or the way it turns up like a prodigal
who comes back to the dust at your feet
having squandered a fortune far away.

And how can you not forgive?
You make a feast in honor of what
was lost, and take from its place the finest
garment, which you saved for an occasion
you could not imagine, and you weep night and day
to know that you were not abandoned,
that happiness saved its most extreme form
for you alone.

No, happiness is the uncle you never
knew about, who flies a single-engine plane
onto the grassy landing strip, hitchhikes
into town, and inquires at every door
until he finds you asleep midafternoon
as you so often are during the unmerciful
hours of your despair.

It comes to the monk in his cell.
It comes to the woman sweeping the street
with a birch broom, to the child
whose mother has passed out from drink.
It comes to the lover, to the dog chewing
a sock, to the pusher, to the basketmaker,
and to the clerk stacking cans of carrots
in the night.
                  It even comes to the boulder
in the perpetual shade of pine barrens,
to rain falling on the open sea,
to the wineglass, weary of holding wine.

— Jane Kenyon

12 December 2013

DNA Acrostic

In the 1950s it was discovered that the sequence of A’s, C’s, T’s and G’s in a chromosome were recipes for making proteins. The language of the recipe is called the ‘genetic code’, and was decoded by Francis Crick. A ‘gene’ is a segment of DNA that specifies a particular protein.

Then in the 1970s, it was discovered that more than 90% of the DNA in our chromosomes doesn’t correspond to any protein whatever. What is it doing? What is it for? The predominant hypothesis at the time was that it has no purpose at all. It just reproduces itself. It is the ‘parasitic DNA’.

This turned out to be all wrong. DNA has several other functions. One of them is to tag the genes, so that they can be selectively turned on and off, where and when it is appropriate. (Most of the genes are inactive most of the time. DNA is the same in every cell of the body, and turning the genes on and off when appropriate for each cell is essential for living metabolism.)

The system of gene tags has not yet been decoded the way the language of genes was decoded in the 1950s. But we do something about ‘gene expression’ and how it is accomplished. Transcription factors are proteins that bind to DNA at a particular place and signal that an adjacent gene is to be turned on or off.

In this week’s Science magazine is an article about segments of DNA that are a kind of acrostic. Perhaps a better analogy would be a bilingual pun, a single sentence that has independent meanings in two different languages. These DNA segments are part of a gene, so they get directly translated into a protein, and they are also part of a binding site for a transcription factor. Such dual-meaning segments have been named duons.

It is extraordinarily difficult to create a sentence that has meaning both in French and in English. How much more difficult to imagine a social situation in which you have a Francophone on your left and an Anglophone on your right, and you have something you want to each of them, and choose words so cleverly that the same pronouncement is interpreted by the two people extract separate, appropriate meanings.

So my guess is that it didn’t happen that way. More plausible is that there was an existing gene (1) adjacent to another gene (2) and the transcription factor to turn on gene (2) evolved so as to recognize gene (1) as a marker.


15 December 2013


Even if it is my favorite Beethoven melody, I would feel I was cheating you if, on his birthday, I offered you the same String Quartet movement (Alla Danza Tedesca from Op 130) that I offered five years ago on this date. So here is another movement from the same quartet, Cavatina. I often get the feeling that Beethoven’s music is driven by an unfolding dramatic line. So here is the opposite – 7 minutes of stasis and tranquility. (The dictionary definition of “cavatina” is “a short operatic aria in simple style without repeated sections”.)

16 December 2013

Elegy in Joy

I missed Muriel Rukeyser’s centennial on the 15th because it was Sunday. Rukeyser was a feminist before feminism, and a socialist before McCarthyism.

We tell beginnings: for the flesh and the answer,
or the look, the lake in the eye that knows,
for the despair that flows down in widest rivers,
cloud of home; and also the green tree of grace,
all in the leaf, in the love that gives us ourselves.

The word of nourishment passes through the women,
soldiers and orchards rooted in constellations,
white towers, eyes of children:
saying in time of war What shall we feed?
I cannot say the end.

Nourish beginnings, let us nourish beginnings.
Not all things are blest, but the
seeds of all things are blest.
The blessing is in the seed.

This moment, this seed, this wave of the sea, this look, this instant of love.
Years over wars and an imagining of peace. Or the expiation journey
toward peace which is many wishes flaming together,
fierce pure life, the many-living home.
Love that gives us ourselves, in the world known to all
new techniques for the healing of the wound,
and the unknown world. One life, or the faring stars.

— Muriel Rukeyser was born 12/15/1913

Breathe-in experience, breathe-out poetry.

17 December 2013

Tina Welter

There is no greater misfortune than underestimating your enemy.  Underestimating your enemy means thinking he is evil.  Thus you destroy your Three Treasures* and become an enemy yourself.

Lao Tsu (tr Mitchell)

* simplicity, patience,, compassion

19 December 2013

‘I cannot but believe that the merits of the divine sacrifice are wider than our utmost charity.’

— George Eliot (Felix Holt, the Radical)

George Eliot was not a Believer, but in her books she portrayed both the arrogant, hypocritical clergy and the sincere and self-reflective minister who grappled with Church doctrine and found in it a way to elevate his own nature. Such a man was Rufus Lyon, into whose mouth Eliot put these words.

20 December 2013


In interviews, he seems mild, slightly depressed.

He composed music in a wide range of styles, with names like Dog breath variations and G-Spot tornado and Uncle Meat.

I look to his music for unrestrained zaniness, and that’s when he’s at his best.

Listening to Inca Road (Ensemble Ambrosius, 2000), I hear a a harpsichord, sitar, mandolin, electronics and orchestral winds.  Let me know what you hear.

Frank Zappa was born this day in 1940.

21 December 2013

To try or not to try

Efforts of will. They are the essence of success and fulfillment and pride. Those who put out extra effort, even when it hurts – especially when it hurts – are not just the ones whose vision will prevail, but also those who feel satisfaction of a life well-lived.

We are swept along into our fate, with the help of our efforts or in spite of them.  Struggle with ourselves creates anxiety and wasted effort, but rarely a product that makes a difference. There is nothing we can do without great social forces on our side, and when we are working in harmony with such forces, our efforts are superfluous.

— Josh Mitteldorf lives on paradox.

22 December 2013

I’ll find a picture for this later.

Every day in every way...

or, more accurately, every decade, despite the charade...

Angus Deaton argues in a new book that there is a long-term trend in human history toward better health, less suffering, more control in the lives of more people. As we face the daunting problems of our age, it is a good reminder that humanity has overcome yet more daunting problems in the past.

Deaton’s central message is deeply positive, almost gloriously so. By the most meaningful measures — how long we live, how healthy and happy we are, how much we know — life has never been better. Just as important, it is continuing to improve.                     — from a NYTimes book review

From my perspective, the most hopeful thing is that our problems are almost exclusively political, rather than physical. Economic fairness and political representation have been undermined in a heavy-handed way by warlords and financial thugs. A very general peace and prosperity is very likely once our eyes are open and we break free.

...and there is reason to hope we will have the collective wisdom to bring the Earth’s other creatures along with us.

23 December 2013

O Magnum Mysterium

Victoria’s a capella setting will always be the original for me.

Only slightly less hauntingly beautiful is one by his contemporary, Gabrielli.

My favorite modern versions are by Jennifer Higdon and Carl Rütti.

The best-known modern setting is by Mort Lauridsen.

Palestrina’s is as pure and perfect as anything he composed.

Listen to the silken voice of counter-tenor Alex Potter in this setting by Zelenka.

And perhaps the most explicitly mysterious is this setting by Margaret Rizza (with video that you may find engaging or you may find distracting).

24 December 2013

All is fair

On this day in 1776, Gen George Washington put a handful of men into small boats and took them across the Delaware River near Trenton to surprise a slightly larger handful of British soldiers as they were recovering from Christmas Eve indulgences. It was a turning point in the Revolutionary War and, in the story I tell, a turning point in the history of warfare.

War since ancient times had been ritualized to reduce the loss of life, substituting symbolic battle for the all-out effort of both sides that is maximally destructive.  By attacking on the Lord’s Birthday, Washington was setting a pattern for a new country. Ours was not to be a nation steeped in superstitious religious ritual.  Our role in the world was as underdogs who need to use every means at our disposal to level the playing field, and give ourselves a fighting chance.

Over the ensuing centuries, we came to reap what we had sown.  We led the world into secularism and democracy, from both of which we later retreated even as Europe advanced.  And we led the world into a horrific era of all-out warfare, as we relinquished our identity as underdog and sought world domination.

Now we find ourselves at the end of an era. Warfare has zero legitimacy worldwide, and the people need to be dragged into war using deception, false-flag attacks and the coercion of an economy that offers few good jobs outside the war machine.  The cycle that Washington began in 1776 has passed through two World Wars, followed by an era in which America’s dominance was unchallenged and we could plunder the world’s energy and minerals unopposed.

The world has passed us in secularism, in democracy, in its commitment to peace and protection of the real underdogs.  The horror of war’s naked violence has been exposed, as the last pretenses of legitimacy have fallen away.  We are ready at last to be reborn into a new era of peace.


25 December 2013

Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze (1851), Metr. Museum of Art

Pray for Peace

Pray to whomever you kneel down to:
Jesus nailed to his wooden or plastic cross,
his suffering face bent to kiss you,
Buddha still under the bo tree in scorching heat,
Adonai, Allah. Raise your arms to Mary
that she may lay her palm on our brows,
to Shekhina, Queen of Heaven and Earth,
to Inanna in her stripped descent.

Then pray to the bus driver who takes you to work.
On the bus, pray for everyone riding that bus,
for everyone riding buses all over the world.
Drop some silver and pray.

Waiting in line for the movies, for the ATM,
for your latte and croissant, offer your plea.
Make your eating and drinking a supplication.
Make your slicing of carrots a holy act,
each translucent layer of the onion, a deeper prayer.

To Hawk or Wolf, or the Great Whale, pray.
Bow down to terriers and shepherds and Siamese cats.
Fields of artichokes and elegant strawberries.

Make the brushing of your hair
a prayer, every strand its own voice,
singing in the choir on your head.
As you wash your face, the water slipping
through your fingers, a prayer: Water,
softest thing on earth, gentleness
that wears away rock.

Making love, of course, is already prayer.
Skin, and open mouths worshipping that skin,
the fragile cases we are poured into.

If you’re hungry, pray. If you’re tired.
Pray to Gandhi and Dorothy Day.
Shakespeare. Sappho. Sojourner Truth.

When you walk to your car, to the mailbox,
to the video store, let each step
be a prayer that we all keep our legs,
that we do not blow off anyone else’s legs.
Or crush their skulls.
And if you are riding on a bicycle
or a skateboard, in a wheelchair, each revolution
of the wheels a prayer as the earth revolves:
less harm, less harm, less harm.

And as you work, typing with a new manicure,
a tiny palm tree painted on one pearlescent nail
or delivering soda or drawing good blood
into rubber-capped vials, writing on a blackboard
with yellow chalk, twirling pizzas—

With each breath in, take in the faith of those
who have believed when belief seemed foolish,
who persevered. With each breath out, cherish.

Pull weeds for peace, turn over in your sleep for peace,
feed the birds, each shiny seed
that spills onto the earth, another second of peace.
Wash your dishes, call your mother, drink wine.

Shovel leaves or snow or trash from your sidewalk.
Make a path. Fold a photo of a dead child
around your VISA card. Scoop your holy water
from the gutter. Gnaw your crust.
Mumble along like a crazy person, stumbling
your prayer through the streets.

Ellen Bass

26 December 2013

The Prophet

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.  And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.  And how else can it be?  The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.  Is not the cup that hold your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?  And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?  When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.  When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.

Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.”  But I say unto you, they are inseparable.  Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.

— Kahlil Gibran

27 December 2013

Listen to The Protecting Veil, by John Tavener (1944-2013)
performed by amazing cellist Maria Kliegel.

28 December 2013

Be realistic! Expect miracles.

I know someone who was told, ‘You can never have a child,’ and came back a year later to the gynecologist, who said only, ‘Sometimes these things happen.’

You probably know someone who was diagnosed with terminal cancer, who came back a year later to the oncologist and no cancer could be detected anywhere.  ‘Sometimes these things happen.’

Science cannot understand most of what biology does. And some things that biology does, science can only shake its head.  Navigate thousands of miles under waterCoordinate collective behaviorsTransmute one element into anotherCommunicate telepathically

Plan your life with surprises built in. When you approach them as opportunities, you find that many more are transformatively wonderful than are life-destroyingly disastrous.  Anticipate miracles in general, but never depend on any miracle in particular.

— Josh Mitteldorf

29 December 2013

New salt compounds challenge the foundations of chemistry

All good research breaks new ground, but rarely does the research unearth truths that challenge the foundation of a science. That’s what Artem R. Oganov has done, and the professor of theoretical crystallography in the Department of Geosciences was published in the Dec. 20, 2013 issue of the journal Science.

Table salt is NaCl. These researchers have created NaCl3 and NaCl7 and many other variations under conditions of high pressure.

“The rules of chemistry are not like mathematical theorems, which cannot be broken,” says Artem Oranov.  “The rules of chemistry can be broken, because impossible only means ‘softly’ impossible! You just need to find conditions where these rules no longer hold.”

Read more from Science Daily

30 December 2013


Shakuntala Devi was known as a human computer.  She could calculate dates and multiply 100-digit numbers and extract cube roots instantly in her head.  She performed on stage and on TV, as a parlor stunt or stage magician.  You might think she just had an extraordinary memory, and perhaps some number circuits hooked up to be much more efficient than yours and mine.  “It’s a very automatic reaction....I was born with this gift.”

But we have hints that there was something more mysterious about Shakuntala’s abilities, and perhaps something we can learn about latent powers of our intuitive minds that we have never developed, or that we have learned to distrust.  Shakuntala consulted clients as an astrologer.  It was not just that she knew how the planets were aligned on any given date; she was able to intuit things about people, their personalities and their futures, that by rights she had no way of knowing.  According to her daughter, Anupama Banerji, Shakuntala had an uncanny intuition about when marriages would work, businesses would fail, if a pregnant woman would be having a boy or a girl.

She worked to support her family.  Wherever she performed or consulted for clients, she took just enough money for herself, and sent the rest back to support an extended family home in India.

— These are my comments (JJM) after reaading aNYTimes Obit

31 December 2013

Queen of Hearts — Archive of past entries. Bullfrog Design