Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Accept the Mystery

"Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you." - Rashi.

I recently rewatched the Coen Brothers film A Serious Man for the first time since its Blu-Ray/DVD release back in February, and enjoyed it much more this time out. The Coens have always been merchants of misanthropy, but it was just so intense and over-the-top in this film that I could barely stand to watch it.

Re-appraising it over the weekend, however, I managed to tune out the bulk of the film - consisting mostly of scene after scene after scene of harassment and humiliation heaped on lead character Larry Gopnik - and focus on the subtle goodies sprinkled lightly throughout. The periphery is always where the most interesting stuff happens in Coen films anyway, but you really have to mine for it a little harder in A Serious Man.

The film opens with a seemingly non-sequitur bit about a Jewish couple (Velvel and Dora) about a hundred years ago. They are visited in the middle of a dark and snowy night by a man claiming to be Reb Groshkover. Dora, aghast, insists the man must be a Dybbuk because she knows the real Groshkover is dead.

(In Jewish tradition, a Dybbuk is a possessing spirit that floats around seeking bodies to attach itself to and inhabit, like a virus and its host. The word itself literally means "attachment".)

Dora stabs him in the sternum with an icepick, and it appears at first that her superstitious theory is true: Groshkover has virtually no reaction to the stabbing, and in fact laughs heartily at her. Just before he gets up to leave (saying "one knows when one is not wanted"), however, we see a pool of blood forming around the icepick that is still protruding from his chest. Groshkover disappears into the night, and the couple still disagree on whether this was a Dybbuk or not. Since the scene ends there, we will never know - was he or wasn't he?

This places Dora and Velvel's mysterious visitor in the same unknowable Eigenstate as Schrödinger's Cat, the example commonly used to illustrate the Copenhagen Interpretation and the Many-Worlds Interpretation of quantum physics.

Gopnik, later in the film, actually gives his students a lesson on Schrödinger's Cat, and points out to them the futility of trying to truly know anything - even as he expects them to study the subject and subsequently take a test on it. Gopnik clearly seems incapable of applying the lesson of Schrödinger's Cat to his own life - two different people in the course of the film urge him to just "accept the mystery", and he just doesn't get it.

Gopnik's brother Arthur, meanwhile, is an idiot savant who lives with him and spends all his time working on a mysterious document he calls The Mentaculus. Arthur believes that the Mentaculus, when completed, will be the end-all, be-all, unified field theory of everything in the Universe. Gopnik largely ignores him, and wishes he'd just get his own apartment and go away. But we see hints that Arthur is actually on to something: Arthur applies his theories to gambling, and in so doing becomes quite successful at it. Seemingly he really can predict the future with his Mentaculus and its "probability map", but he's too socially inept and withdrawn to harness this knowledge properly.

At one point, Gopnik interestingly uses the phrase "bolt from the blue" to describe the upheavals in his life, and says "everything I thought was one way turn out to be another." And at another point, a Rabbi uses the phrase "right where you are sitting now" in the course of telling a convoluted story with no apparent point, about a dentist who thinks he sees the words "help me" (עִזרוּ לִ) in Hebrew on the teeth of a patient.

At film's end (sorry about the spoiler, but the movie has been out for well over a year now) we're left with another unresolved Schrödinger's Cat. Gopnik gets a call from his doctor that he needs to come in immediately for a serious discussion about his X-ray results. The doctor then repeats and underscores the seriousness of it by stressing that Gopnik must come in to see him right now.

Meanwhile, across town, we see Gopnik's son staring at a tornado headed directly for him as his teacher is unable to get the storm shelter door open.

Fade to black. Credits.

Saturday, November 13, 2010


I always knew I was the center of the Universe, and now Robert Lanza agrees.

Lanza's book Biocentrism, which contends that human consciousness is what is really determining the shaping of reality - is making waves in the media lately. Even Huffington Post is all over the concept now, giving Lanza ample space to drop some science:

Cosmologists propose that the universe was until recently a lifeless collection of particles bouncing against each other. It's presented as a watch that somehow wound itself up, and that will unwind in a semi-predictable way. But they've shunted a critical component of the cosmos out of the way because they don't know what to do with it. This component, consciousness, isn't a small item. It's an utter mystery, which we think has somehow arisen from molecules and goo.

Lanza goes on to enumerate in great detail how extremely unlikely it is that the Universe could have formed in such a way that made conditions just right for this spiral arm of the Milky Way to have formed this planet whose conditions are just right for hosting human life and that we happen to have "evolved" here at just the right time to take advantage of it, despite a long chain of factors and variables that make all of the above statistically near-impossible to have occurred in sequence.

Does it mean that the "Creationists" are right after all? Or does it mean mankind is just the luckiest critter in the Universe?

Lanza says no to both - Lanza says that we dodged all those dangers of the physical world because we were here first and we are shaping reality as we go along - "we" being life itself, the life force, the whatever-you-want-to-call-it that is really piloting these golems of flesh and bone we're lumbering around in, that St. Francis of Assisi referred to as "Brother Ass". Though human consciousness may or may not carry greater weight in that reality-creation, life means life, and that includes not only you and me, but all life, even yeast, fungi, and microscopic dust mites.

Lanza isn't the first to propose these ideas, of course - not by any means - and some previous blazers of these trails have expressed them more elegantly, in fact. But by building on the works of those pioneering thinkers who came before him, Lanza is having some success at entering these radical ideas into the mainstream at a time when even our grandparents are finally just starting to have an inkling of the ramifications of quantum physics.

His view of Biocentric Cosmology can be broken down into seven basic principles:

1. What we perceive as reality is a process that involves our consciousness. An "external" reality, if it existed, would by definition have to exist in space. But this is meaningless, because space and time are not absolute realities but rather tools of the human and animal mind.

2. Our external and internal perceptions are inextricably intertwined. They are different sides of the same coin and cannot be divorced from one another.

3. The behavior of subatomic particles, indeed all particles and objects, is inextricably linked to the presence of an observer. Without the presence of a conscious observer, they at best exist in an undetermined state of probability waves.

4. Without consciousness, "matter" dwells in an undetermined state of probability. Any universe that could have preceded consciousness only existed in a probability state.

5. The structure of the universe is explainable only through biocentrism. The universe is fine-tuned for life, which makes perfect sense as life creates the universe, not the other way around. The "universe" is simply the complete spatio-temporal logic of the self.

6. Time does not have a real existence outside of animal-sense perception. It is the process by which we perceive changes in the universe.

7. Space, like time, is not an object or a thing. Space is another form of our animal understanding and does not have an independent reality. We carry space and time around with us like turtles with shells. Thus, there is no absolute self-existing matrix in which physical events occur independent of life.

My old pal David Thompson at NASA's Astroparticle Physics Lab in Maryland has effusively embraced Lanza's work, describing it as "a wake-up call" for us all.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Dresden Angels

The folks at Dresden Star offer some amazing Victorian-style one-of-a-kind Christmas ornaments handmade almost entirely from reclaimed bric-a-brac of the period.

The hot-air-balloon bunny above is made from "old glass ornament(s) with beautiful patina; detailed embossed scrap(s) (most of them predate the 1900s and are meticulously backed with early papers and/or old tinsel); a variety of old fabric - chenille, lace, ribbon and metallic trims; old decorative tinsel (most of which is from old tree garlands); and old papers of all kinds, including lovely old-stock Dresden paper trims, old foil, gift wrap, and other embellishments."

The angel below is made of "antique scrap bust of demure young Victorian maiden, early vintage Dresden paper harp, vintage rhinestone (jewel on necklace), circa 1920s Dennison crepe paper (covered over cardboard that has a built-in cone for hanging as a topper), the finest hand-tatted antique Victorian lace, buff-colored antique lace edged with chenille, early vintage silk flower petals, Dresden paper wings, 3 early vintage and antique Dresden paper medallions, circa 1920s old-stock multi-colored spun-glass halo, antique Dresden paper bows, 3 different antique Dresden paper trims, antique tinsel roping, delicate antique gold cording (hanger)."

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The End of Time

Meatloaf may not have to pray for the end of time for as long as he thought.

Scientists are now saying that time itself may cease to exist in just a mere five billion years. They say this will occur "coincidentally, right around the time our sun is slated to die," but consider that this isn't a coincidence at all, but rather an indicator of our own live demonstration of quantum uncertainty and humans creating their own reality, unwittingly, via our own perceptions - as far as we're concerned, in a very real sense, we really are the center of the Universe.

The time-will-end theory depends on acceptance of the idea of the Multiverse (and that's an idea we fully endorse here, in case you haven't caught on), and in discussing this, the above-linked National Geographic article actually elucidates one of the most radical, dangerous, and paradigm-shattering truths there is:

"The problem with a multiverse is that anything that can happen will happen an infinite number of times, and that makes calculating probabilities seemingly impossible."

If the above sentence doesn't simultaneously terrify you, inspire you, make you burst into tears, make you start laughing like a maniac, make you want to quit your job, make you want to go lay down and try not to think about it, then you haven't truly wrapped your head around the implications of what it really means.

A related phenomenon that we're just starting to understand is the unknown structures tugging at our own universe that would have been total sci-fi fodder not long ago, but it's quickly become accepted as business as usual. There's a so-called "dark flow" towards the edge of the Universe that's causing hundreds of galaxy clusters to zoom, en masse, in the same direction at over 2.2 million miles an hour, and according to leading physicists, it is the best indicator we have of objects outside our universe and outside what we call "reality" influencing objects in our own.

When you start really grasping these concepts with the same part of your brain that you think about your day-to-day life stuff - and not just quickly filing it away in the "gosh, how bout that, aint that somethin" part of your brain - you might start caring a lot less about the little things on this rock that so many people waste their entire brief existences obsessing about (sports, politics, scrapbooking).

(Image above: the currently most distant known object in the Universe, a little something we like to call "UDFy-38135539".)