JS: I would like to argue that the fluke of the blue whale pictured above is—from the standpoint of evolutionary biology, if not cosmic harmony—both a necessity and, well, a fluke.
The probability of life occurring on Earth as it did is probably vanishingly low, but how low we will never know until we can measure it against the probability of life on other planets, the so-called exoplanets that Kepler Space Telescope has been snooping around for since 2009. As of 2018, Kepler has found 3797 exo-planets in around 2851 star systems, but are any of the planets habitable? Apparently about 15% of them are in the Goldilocks Zone. But of those how many can plausibly make the epic trek from amino acids and proteins in the primordial soup of the sea to our magnificent blue whale and its shapely fluke? That percentage has not yet been worked out by anyone, so far as I know. But I suspect it is terribly low. What are the odds of abiogenesis?
The chances of big mammals emerging from the basic elements of a rocky planet orbiting a sun are so low that we should—as they say—thank our lucky star (and our mineral-rich seas) that life emerged in the first place. I don’t want to say we are fantastically “lucky” to be here but it does strike me that big-brained Homo sapiens sort of take existence for granted. I know I do. But every breathe I take—and every brain cell I oxidize into thought—should be properly regarded as an evolutionary miracle of staggering proportions. I wonder why it’s so difficult to keep this miraculous fluke steadily in mind. As someone trained in the natural sciences, you must have some thoughts about our flukish whale and the immense improbability of its very existence. And what precisely are the physics of abiogenesis? How did we get from cosmic inflation to the blue whale? Isn’t the transition from physics to chemistry to biology also one of the most peculiar narratives imaginable?
CH: Emergence – the process by which we get chemistry from physics and biology from chemistry in turn – is one of the richest and least satisfactorily explained concepts in all science and the philosophy thereof. Here is the textbook toy example of emergence due to Conway:
Imagine an infinite chess-board where every square may be black or white: dead or alive. We evolve the state of the board in discrete steps according to three simple rules. Here I copy from Wikipedia;
- Any live cell with two or three live neighbours survives;
- Any dead cell with three live neighbours becomes a live cell;
- All other live cells die in the next generation. Similarly, all other dead cells stay dead.
What happens? Structure happens. Provided we initialize the board with the right state, we get self-contained units that move themselves around; units that replicate themselves; units that can destroy other units. Note that if we initialize an arbitrarily large board with an entirely random state these units will arise purely by chance. Here’s another thing: the Game of Life board is Turing-complete. That is, with the right starting state it can run through any calculation that can be solved by a digital computer. On our infinite-random board we can imagine any possible computer program existing and playing itself through. This might not be intelligence as we know it, but given the current state of AI it’s uncannily close. All from random chance and three simple rules. Compare the fact that there exists a theory of chess itself that is rich enough to fill innumerable books. A few more rules admittedly, but confined to an eight-by-eight.
How could we possibly anticipate any of this? Only by setting the whole thing going on a computer or a lifetime in the Hermitage of good old English Algebra? I, as someone who likes to talk to computers, would welcome the idea that computation is the answer – the only way that emergence might be reined in.
When Drake formulated his famous equation for the number of extant, detectable civilisations in the universe, he had to estimate the parameters you mention. Not P(blue whale) as such but they’re basically equivalent. Fascinatingly, he set fl and fi – the fractions of planets on which life could develop on which life does develop, and the fraction of those on which intelligent life develops, respectively – both equal to 1. Certain. These are by no means consensus opinions, but it’s within the realm of sensible possibility that the right conditions lead to intelligent life with a non-negligible, even high, probability. The point is that the right conditions are vanishingly rare.
Here is an important question: to what extent is anthropic bias a satisfactory explanation for the apparent fine-tuning of our surroundings to life? It must be asked on every level from the value of Planck’s constant, through the length of an Astronomical Unit, to the contents of our soil.
There is a linguistic point to be made about the notion of the probability of the present. I mean the question, what is the probability that I am here saying this? I wonder if it’s a case of scientific transcendence – the scale of the cosmos – obscuring the real point. The real point exists on the down-to-earth level of ‘how likely was it my parents shared their first kiss?’ and indeed on the even more cosmological ‘how likely is it the fundamental physical constants have the values they do?’. One might argue that the answer in all three cases is either ‘nonsense: undefined’ or ‘so small that we may consider it zero, and exactly how close to zero doesn’t matter’. So what?
JS: As usual, there are 14.52 ways to reply to your ornate reflections on emergence. Here is one.
Wings by Miroslav HolubWe have a microsopic anatomy of the whale this gives Man assurance William Carlos WilliamsWe have a map of the universe for microbes, we have a map of a microbe for the universe. we have a Grand Master of chess made of electronic circuits. But above all we have the ability to sort peas, to cup water in our hands, to seek the right screw under the sofa for hours This gives us wings.
I am fairly certain that the “peas” reference is an homage from a Czech poet and immunologist to that assiduous and ingenious sorter of peas called Johann Georg Mendel, who did his work in Brno, where I partly lived and taught for two years long ago, offering a literary anatomy of the blue whale called “the canon of British literature.”
The whale’s fluke is extraordinary enough just as it is, but now we must add to it poetry not only about whales and microbes but about discovering principles of genetics by using our delicate fingers and opposable thumb and by using our mathematical mind. How to fathom all these emergencies? And the most stunning emergency of all must be that of consciousness, without which we simply could not recognize and ponder all these other emergent life-forms that billions of years of evolution parade before us.
A monk, Mendel was living in a kind of cell, a live one, next to other Monks who did not have a clue about why those peas were so important. And now here we are, locked-down in our little cells (mine is in West London), thinking about dead cells and dead neighbors, and wondering about the odds of biology becoming thanatology. The right conditions to make our cellular, dialogic lives possible are even spectacularly improbable. If our four parents had never kissed, no dialogic imaginations, no wings of thought. But what precisely had to kiss to get primordial physics off the ground? What immeasurably hot kiss (to go with that theory) had to occur for cosmic inflation to supply the conditions of possibility for protons, then hydrogen, helium, proteins, bacteria, primates and then the lustre in our PrimeMates’—our parents’—midnight eyes: the origin of our species of intellectual conversation? Is it all a fluke or the opposite of a fluke, once physics sprays itself into [a] universe?
CH: It is easy to see the succession of emergences as a great, inevitable chain reaction. Each step is reasonable enough – we’ll let it pass – but the results are startling when taken as a whole, rather like when a theorem is unfolded at the blackboard by a musty professor. It is easier still to see mankind perched on top, the final step, giving himself wings by pushing peas and cupping a fresh handful of his mass-produced Red Bull.
Is this the only way to see it? At the very least entropy – the great directionalizing force – pushes events along a certain rut. But I often think that physics, chemistry, and biology, cetology, thanatology, eschatology, and the rest, are merely different ways of seeing the same thing. One does not lead to the other, beyond the sense that the human philosopher using one as-paradigm might lead him to begin using the next. So we do not see biology arise, but rather those things to which it is useful for biology to be applied.
Now we see Mendel tending to his pea-plants. How quiet it is, now Brother Francis is brewing beer in the store-house and Brother John is mowing fields with a scythe. Organized society, cell by cell. I often struggle to reconcile the Very Poetry of genetics with the studious detachment of tending to one’s pea-plants. Years ago when we were talking about CERN and stealing Fire from the Gods I wondered where Prometheus was to be found amongst the mouseish activities of a thousand scientists hunched over monitors in their burrows deep underground. I thought: In a crystal lattice of atoms, propagating sound waves behave very much like particles; they are packets of energy with a defined momentum which can travel across the material and scatter off each other. And yet they amount to nothing more than small oscillations of each atom about its set place. [This is again an example of ways of seeing.] What if as a wave through the organization of human beings there could arise an emergent will?– the will of a being that would exist in a shimmering reality, its aspiration and acuity reaching far beyond that of any man. It could well be called a Titan or a God.
What folly! So, the last step is human folly. Or human guile. Human guile that looks like folly and folly that looks like guile. Is it Hubris to think as much? Hubris, where our wings come unstuck?
I know nothing of what sparked physics into action (no-one does), but isn’t it compelling to imbue it with the urgent emergence of a human kiss. Now or never:
To disintegrate on an instant in the explosion of mania
Or lapse for ever into a classic fatigue.
JS: To Auden’s grim choice we can add Eliot’s predicted lapse: “This is the way the world ends…not with a bang [a Big one, because the universe clenched itself again] but a whimper”[because entropy’s rut is inevitable]—the last photon winking out a few trillion trillion trillion years from now.
Will? What are the physics of Will? Where there’s a will, there’s a wave? That thought brings me back to our whale fluke, from which hangs a tail/tale, thus.
Let us consider the will of a creature being its chief mode of propulsion, its way of pushing forward, its way of asserting itself, its forwardness. The brain sends its electrical signal and the tail does the heavy swishing and drives the creature into its future. The tail knows nothing of entropy. The tail is a brute’s force, its will to power, its instinct to move either to its prey or away from being prey. Is that propulsion an “explosion of mania”? Before I get to “Man” in his Promethean assertiveness and Titanic, anti-entropic follies and achievements, let me go backwards to the tiniest, most astonishing little motor of a tail. Here it is.
Our blue whale’s fluke is also an example of evolution’s long push forward but it pales in comparison to the brilliant complexity of the bacterial rotary flagellum, which has been around for about 4 billion years. Indeed the “irreducible complexity” of this little tail has encouraged some to use it as proof of intelligent design. That is, this tail is the opposite of a fluke: it is too precise and marvellous not to have been designed by some intelligence, some divine Will that wanted to give its Creatures a push forward. Here is the sort of argument one gets by people who enjoying whipping us all into theological shape.
"IMAGINE A NANOTECHNOLOGY MACHINE far beyond the state of the art: a microminiaturized rotary motor and propeller system that drives a tiny vessel through liquid. The engine and drive mechanism are composed of 40 parts, including a rotor, stator, driveshaft, bushings, universal joint, and flexible propeller. The engine is powered by a flow of ions, can rotate at up to 100,000 rpm ... and can reverse direction in a quarter of a rotation. The system comes with an automatic feedback control mechanism. The engine itself is about 1/100,000th of an inch wide -- far smaller than can be seen by the human eye. Most of us would be pleasantly surprised to learn that some genius had designed such an engineering triumph. What might come as a greater surprise is that there is a dominant faction in the scientific community that is prepared to defend, at all costs, the assertion that this marvelous device could not possibly have been designed, must have been produced blindly by unintelligent material forces, and only gives the appearance -- we said appearance! -- of being designed. As you may have guessed, these astonishingly complex, tiny, and efficient engines exist. Millions of them exist inside you, in fact. They are true rotary motors that drive the "bacterial flagellum," a whip-like propulsion device for certain bacteria, including the famous E. coli that lives in your digestive system." (Peterson D., "The Little Engine That Could...Undo Darwinism," The American Spectator," 8 May 2005).
Is this rapturous, even loving description of the little engine that could an example of folly and hubris, or wings that take us into the melting sun? Is the Final Fluke of Evolution a spirited Denial of Evolution in favour of a Designer? Is every way of seeing a wave of seeing? And what of gravitational waves? Or Virginia Woolf’s The Waves? Everything that moves makes a wave. Tails and tales push. Or does something pull them, the way the gravity of love pulls progenitors into the kiss that makes the world go round?
CH: I find emergence, incidentally, to be one of the most elegant arguments against a Designer. We know emergence happens because we see it happen, much like evolution. Note then how our Designer is not working on a blueprint like the above but is rather putting the world together on the level of the fundamental laws of physics; he writes that h = 6.63×10-34 J·s and not that bacteria are to have a flagellum of a certain shape. And to foresee all the inevitable leaps from the initial crack (this is how the world begins – for the beginning is surely as terrible as the end) to flagella and flukes and ourselves running about sleeping with people and playing fives – why, He would have to be so tremendously intelligent as to be not like us at all. And why does He have to try the experiment so many times, planet after abortive planet? God does not play dice. I shall spend no more time down the grimy, waterlogged rabbit-hole of refuting creationism. It does fascinate me, however, how we refuse to let it go: I understand that to this day Elon Musk is giving interviews saying he thinks the world is a computer simulation. Technology has made us such good stage-conjurers that we begin to believe in magic again. Do you ever worry that digital computers will undo the Enlightenment?
Tails do not see entropy because entropy is the bigger picture—entropy is what you get when you zoom out. We take a vast, bustling system – complexity that beggars all description – and assign a single number to it. We prove by algebra that whatever goes on inside, push and pull, velis and nolis, that single number must obey a rule: it must always tick upwards. Not even Maxwell’s Demon – that insufferable little Puck borne of one of the greatest minds that ever lived – can stop it. I suppose this approach to physics is the opposite of giving the problem to a digital computer – Grandmaster of the Game of Life // made of electronic circuits – and seeing what comes out, quite by magic. If we give a computer a real system (even the whole world) we will only see what chaos may come in a few seconds’ time. With Maxwell we see what will happen in a trillion, trillion years. (How calm it is. Entropy rounds the edges off us. It is quite like civilization.)
Is it now time to zoom in? In the grand history of paradigms, waves beget wavefunctions.
JS: Ionic flows make the tiniest of waves (or wakes) but nothing—I suspect—in comparison to the waves that electrons make. What happen to our flukes of nature when we zoom in on the behaviour of electrons? Isn’t the word “behaviour” already far too anthropomorphic to describe anything outside of ourselves? To what extent are the words “wave” and “particle” metaphors? And “wavicle”?—a portmanteau suggesting that physics often gives linguistics cramps.
Is it possible to subtract our behaviour (Man is the measurement of all things?) in observing the wavefunction of atoms or electrons? How far are we measuring our own measurements? And what does consciousness have to do with these questions? What if consciousness also makes waves? Indeed, how could it not? Wavefunctions beget all these questions, which are also quests. I take it that physicists disagree about how to interpret wavefunctions.
The founding question of philosophy is “what is?” Quidditas. But does quantum wavefunction defy this question? “What is waving?” may be a non-sensical question, a meaningless quest with no grail waiting at the end. Is the word “is” misleading?
CH: Let me take a moment to de-mystify the wavefunction (in also the sense of disentangling it from the Mystic). I find the basis of quantum mechanics to be a thoroughly clear theory, and we do it an injustice by calling it a brain-buster.
For our electron, let us define a function V across space. A function across space is simply a number which has a different value according to position. The temperature at each point in a room, for example, defines a function across space. It is anything we can plot on a graph with a position co-ordinate on the x-axis. V tells us what potential energy the electron would have at a particular point. Climbing up a hill in the presence of gravity would give an electron potential energy. (Though we find gravity holds little sway on the quantum scale.) So would being near a like – repulsive – charge. We then look for pairs of functions φ and numbers E which obey a rule. That rule is the Schrödinger Equation. Namely, the curvature of φ at any point must equal E-V times φ, up to a constant. By the curvature of a function I mean specifically ‘how quickly does its slope (imagine it plotted on a graph) change with position?’ There might be any number of φs that fit the rule, but we find that each of them has only a single E that will work with it. We call these φs eigenstates of energy because they have a well-defined value of energy, namely their corresponding E. Now, the rule that the electron obeys is that its wavefunction, ψ, might be any of these φs, or it might be a linear combination of them—that is to say, if φ1 and φ2 were possible φs, then ψ could be φ1 or it could be φ1 + 3φ2. (I’m disregarding normalization for now). If left unobserved, the electron’s wavefunction cycles through the possible ψs according to an exact, perfectly deterministic rule. It is impossible to measure ψ directly.
Suppose we make a measurement of something we can observe: the electron’s position, let’s say. The result of our measurement will be chosen randomly according to a probability distribution that depends on ψ. For position, the appropriate distribution is simply the magnitude of ψ, squared. Once a measurement has been made, the electron’s wavefunction jumps discontinuously to a different ψ which is associated a well-defined position (naturally, we call this an eigenstate of position). If we immediately make a second observation of the position, we will always get the same answer as we did the first time around.
So, that’s quantum mechanics. It came out rather longer than I’d hoped, but it feels in the spirit of this dialogue to include it complete. What can we make of it? One of the reasons people say it’s clearly wrong is that we’ve defined an arbitrary class of actors – observers; ‘us’ – who exclusively are able to make wavefunctions jump. (To be able to observe in this sense is not unique to man. Radioactive nuclei, for example, are quite able to observe themselves.) But surely we too are quantum systems whose wavefunctions should intermingle continuously and evolve according to the deterministic rules? It appears we are not – there is something peculiar to the Observer Class that can interrupt the clockwork and force nature’s dice to be rolled.
As we zoom out, the Newtonian regime emerges – in which the values of observables give you (almost) complete information about a system. So the act of observation is all that introduces randomness into the world, but on the scale of human beings or even neurons firing in the brain it only introduces the slightest sliver of randomness, albeit one that classical chaos can amplify. (Or indeed the psychopath can amplify who rigs his Geiger-counter to a cat-killing machine.)
Are we now in a position to observe the quiddity of the electron? I wonder if the confusion lies in that although electrons are simples as building-blocks of nature, they are complexes in our understanding. Namely, they are the logical sum of all the regimes of physics we apply to them, and each suggests its own what?. Electron wavefunctions interfere according to the same law as water-waves, so we say an electron is a wave. Zoom out and we see an electron bump around like a billiard ball so we say it is a billiard ball. We may dress nature in whatever quiddities we like and we’re left with different impressions of what is and what is important. It is the same electron all along.
JS: What exactly is the Observer Class and what makes it peculiar and lets it roll the dice? Is any act of consciousness a roll of the dice? What is quantum consciousness? To be and not to be? And I don’t know what you mean by “the slightest sliver of randomness.” Is even that sliver an epistemological/ontological game-changer? If the observer is necessarily part of the observation, when what does it matter how much or how little the observation alters: that it alters at all is the point, no?
What are the odds that any other creature in the universe, even given millions of fecund exo-planets, could ever develop in such a way as to produce the dialogue we are now evolving? I imagine there are bluish whalish creatures sliding silently through vast seas on planets millions of light-years away from us, but the chances of Cal-like or James-like brains cavorting dialectically are, I would suggest, zero. I am not flattering us. I am simply failing to imagine that our way of making waves isn’t, after all, a singular fluke.
CH: All macroscopic phenomena emerge from quantum mechanics (except those that don’t, like gravity) but they often retain few of the characteristics of a quantum phenomenon on the quantum scale. One of those characteristics is dice-rolling upon observation. Quantum randomness is often brought up in the context of the all-too-tired Free Will problem: if the brain is clockwork, a very accurate brain-scan could tell me my state of mind in ten minutes’ time. Introduce the vestiges of quantum mechanics on the neuron-scale, and that might change to ‘a very good approximation of my state of mind’. Has that really given me free will if I didn’t have it already? I don’t think so. There is no quantum consciousness.
The distinction I’m picking at is between the true randomness of quantum systems and what a computer programmer would call pseudorandomness. The state of a chaotic system under many iterations of a deterministic law is pseudorandom. A computer processor cannot generate truly random numbers by itself, but in most practical cases pseudorandomness will suffice. I wonder how many of our flukes of nature are in fact Newtonian-chaotic pseudo-flukes.
As an analogy: suppose I (or Hamlet) delegate some decision to the toss of a coin. A measurement of the coin’s orientation and velocity just after it left my hand could tell an engineer (probably, just about) the result of the toss ahead of time. Suppose instead I base my choice on the vital status of Schrodinger’s Cat. Has anything really changed?
I recall the slightly nauseating TV-astronomer spiel about fifty billion galaxies behind your thumbnail at arm’s length. Except now, fifty billion seems rather a small number of trials to reproduce exactly us. All our quiddities considered, I’d say zero. Confidently.
Here’s a fun challenge that has just occurred to me: by thinking alone, generate a number (let’s say a single bit; 0 or 1) as randomly as possible. How might we tap into the faint waving of quantum effects in our brain? I mean that as a practical question.
JS: Why not just contemplate not psi but pi?. Not a fluke, but a mind-henge? What might that do to our brains, if not our branes? Speaking of brains, I will be wanting shortly to shift to the other end of our whale, its mighty head.
CH: Pi: numerical complexity and numerical chaos hiding just behind the circle, that perfectly-rounded symbol of just-rightness in the world.
Should we examine our assumption of just-rightness? To what extent is the world really a hospitable place? The family in war-ravaged Yemen would be surprised to see us answer that question with reference to the value of Planck’s constant. So perhaps would Hamlet. Have we been dealt an over-hot or over-cold bowl of porridge all along? Which?
JS: As if a whale’s fluke isn’t interesting—and possibly lethal—enough, Herman Melville writes a memorable chapter in Moby Dick on a sperm whale’s massive head and the man (Tashtego) who is charged with digging a well into it so he can remove bucket after bucket of sperm-like oil. It is the finest oil in the whale, apparently, and is “just right” (for exploitation) to sell to merchants and entrepreneurs back in thriving Nantucket (for lamps but also to lubricate the machines of the Industrial Revolution). The Goldilocks Zone of the sperm whale, that is, is in it head, at least that’s how whalers and merchants see it. The brain of the mighty beast is negligible, according to the seamen. Ahab is alone in wondering what Moby Dick might be thinking when he exacts his terrible revenge on the men who would kill him. Melville ends his chapter in a way that has made my own head hurt with conjecture. Tashtego ends up falling into the great hole he has made in the slaughtered whale’s head, but he survives the plunge.
Now, had Tashtego perished in that head, it had been a very precious perishing; smothered in the very whitest and daintiest of fragrant spermaceti; coffined, hearsed, and tombed in the secret inner chamber and sanctum sanctorum of the whale. Only one sweeter end can readily be recalled—the delicious death of an Ohio honey-hunter, who seeking honey in the crotch of a hollow tree, found such exceeding store of it, that leaning too far over, it sucked him in, so that he died embalmed. How many, think ye, have likewise fallen into Plato’s honey head, and sweetly perished there?
Now, to return obliquely to one of your questions above, one could argue that, for the poor sperm whale, cavorting through Pacific Ocean, there is no Goldilocks Zone because men have so mercilessly imperilled the very survival of its species, roughly 20 million years in the making, and a few billion years before that if you go back to the origin of life on Earth. Only man (John Grey calls us homo rapiens) is vile and greedy enough to effectively undo the evolutionary biodiversity occasioned by living for 5 billion years in the Zone. Melville is not an early David Attenborough, but he is a complicated writer who sees many sides to his whale and the eager whalers who manage to think of sperm and death in the same breath. The more dead sperm whales, the more oil, the more oil, the more profit.
We presently have the other end of our whale to ponder: the end that also, in one case, actually did bring down a ship (the Essex), killed many sailors, and thereby took its revenge on homo rapiens, some of whom seem hell-bent on turning Life into Death and laughing all the way to the [sperm-oil] bank.
CH: For much of the history of science the standard unit of luminous intensity was the brightness of one candle of pure spermaceti. When Thomas Young carried out the experiments that led to quantum mechanics he would always light his apparatus with a candle because, in the absence of a LASER, it was a good source of near-coherent light. It seems true to the flukiness of our flukes of nature that such brutality and absurdity should lie (obliquely) behind their discovery.
Absurdity indeed for he whose brief candle is snuffed out floundering in the head-juices of a sea-beast, his garments heavy with viscous slop pulled down to greasy death. It seems to me the whaler amongst the storm and stench of the whale-ship would feel just as far from the Goldilocks Zone as his prey. Does it not seem the perfect sketch of the romantic idea—man as defined by his being-in-adversity, and his adversity is Nature? (Perhaps that is the whole idea of Moby-Dick, but I have not read it.)
All of this talk of harpooning gives me a heart (a heart the size of a small car) for these great creatures: an affinity between singing species. Is that a romantic idea? Is it also a romantic idea to feel a deep sadness for how our science lets us tame and level and scorch the surroundings that once overpowered us at sea and weathered us in a lofty mountain pass?
Wandering the swept-empty streets of Canterbury (it still feels like a bad zombie film) I was struck by the song a sperm-whale might sing at the news of the eradication of homo rapiens. Like a shepherd’s song after a storm. Rather like the last movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral.
JS: Physics, chemistry, and biology Giveth, and homo rapiens Take Away. At the end of his documentary about sperm whales—where his cameraman films a rare, baby “Moby Dick,” Attenborough says, “We would once have slaughtered a white whale like this without a thought. But now, a more respectful relationship has begun to emerge through watching whales. Already it’s begun to yield riches by illuminating not our lamps but our sense of wonder of the creatures with which we share the world.”
I wonder if human beings ever give much thought of the extent to which they have turned back the Goldilocks Zone and indulged recklessly in a kind of anti-genesis, de-creating the world and the conditions of possibility for continued life. Certainly, we are more concerned by our killing of the planet than we were fifty years ago. And harpoons launched by massive guns into whales are now mostly illegal. Whale populations are increasing again, very slowly.
But how and why did human beings become so expert at destroying the Goldilocks Zone for so many creatures? Is there any other organism so destructive as human beings? We are so aggressive and bellicose that Freud was forced to posit a force opposing Eros: he called it Thanatos, and argued that we all have a Death Instinct (Hamlet’s “not to be”) that, when turned outwards, becomes aggression—the will to make others “not be.” Even the harpooner, trying to feed his growing family back in Nantucket, probably enjoyed hurling his spear into the lungs of sperm whales. Human beings wipe out an extraordinary number of species on a weekly basis. According to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, humans have caused the annihilation of 83% of all wild mammals and half of all plants. Is there anything more absurd—and ethically despicable—than the products of flukes wiping out other products of flukes, including giant and peaceful mammals with flukes for tails?
CH: Is Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov the perfect model for homo rapiens et sapiens? Like Raving Rodion our species proves by algebra that we’ve every right to take a hatchet to our forests and seas and populations of white whales. We shall be hailed in the public square for making the world a more forward place. A race of Napoleons, we step over the little acts: one oak felled, one lung harpooned. On that tearful day when guilty man shall arise again from the ashes to be judged – we shall give a neat confession that we only killed to steal. And we shall be sentenced to eight years in the inferno only.
I fear that stepping back from humanity too, you see the actions of petty madmen. Sordidly intellectual madmen who kill very much for killing itself. Who build themselves low-ceilinged squalid rooms and places like old St Petersburg. How do we answer the charge? We do not harpoon whales any more, nor do we send people to Siberia for printing books. Does the story of humanity come with a bizarre moralizing epilogue like that tacked onto Crime and Punishment or Don Giovanni? At last found (Christian) love?
I am for now, for better or worse, stuck with the image of Goldilocks bludgeoning the three bears.
JS: Our Bible reading for the day must be:
Genesis 1:26-28 King James Version (KJV)
26 And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
28 And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.
The Bible gave us “dominion over” the earth, which could be taken to mean “domination” or “stewardship” depending if you translate the Hebrew word radah as “skilled mastery among [or, with respect to]”, rather than “brute force over.” What follows this famous Bible verse is a cheerful affirmation of vegan food chains where no blood is spilt and where the earth is a garden of abundance for all its inhabitants.
We may have taken a break from slaughtering whales, but we still have dominion over (kill) 55 African elephants every day. And if you energetically oppose Putin in the press or on the streets, you can be gunned down or thrown in prison.
I think we must consider the possibility that violence is not an aberration of human behaviour but a rule. Having been given the most precious gift/fluke of life, human beings have been singularly-talented at destroying not only their own ecosystem but the ecosystems of millions of other species. Homo rapiens is a gifted killer. As my (dead) teacher John Gardner wrote in his novel, Grendel, “No wolf was ever so cruel to other wolves.” When the whalers had thrust their early harpoons into a sperm whale, it would race across the surface of the sea until it tired. The seamen referred to this exciting burst of speed as “a Nantucket sleigh ride” and whooped and cheered like boisterous boys. On rare occasions the whale would have the strength to dive and the boat would capsize; rarer still were the occasions when the whale’s fluke came crashing down on the whalers, spanking them to death and sending them down to the hydrothermal vents (a Goldilocks Zone in itself) that invented them over 3.7 billion years ago. The circle of life? The circle of death? To be or not to be? Who decides? The will to power? Consciousness? Appetite? Lust? Greed? Intelligence? The opposable thumb? Saddest of all: the Imagination?
CH: Is it possible to discuss the environment these days without escaping politics? To what extent can the worst destructive urges of homo rapiens be stemmed by the political process? By grave blue-suited diplomats signing protocols? By students singing in the streets? Or like Rousseau thought, by education itself? To what extent has this dialogue made you want to glue yourself to the DLR? If not, what is the answer? After such crimes against his dominion, how else can the tyrant be deposed?
What sort of a trial should we give the profiteering top-hat capitalists who staged the industrial revolution at the expense of innumerable whales? What trial for the harpooner who relished every bump and slide of the Nantucket sleigh ride? Can we find them guilty of a crime it was only their nature to commit? Was it worth it, after all, as long as we don’t go any further? Can we really look down on them with the patronizing glare of the examining-magistrate and sentence them to guilt?
JS: This dialogue has plunged like a harpoon from wonder to cynicism. “Harpoon” is a beautiful word and I’ll bet that harpoon makers were artisans who took pride in their work and did not spend much time—or any time—thinking the whales drowning in the blood in their lungs, just as those who design and assemble Hellfire drones don’t spend any time pondering the collateral damage (innocent civilians) who end up blown to bits.
Note the design of the barbs to keep the harpoon well-lodged in the whale
Whaling harpoon gun
Anti-ship harpoon missile
I include these improvements on the harpoon to show our technological genius for death and destruction. I don’t know how to put this talent for death and anti-Goldilocks thinking on trial or how to punish the humankind for its murderous ingenuity. I am left to consider the justice of John Gray’s lugubrious but oddly serene observations.
Homo rapiens is only one of the very many species, and not obviously worth preserving. Later or sooner, it will become extinct. When it is gone the Earth will recover. Long after the last traces of the human animal have disappeared, many of the species it is bent on destroying will still be around, along with others that have yet to spring up. The Earth will forget mankind. The play of life will go on (Straw Dogs, 151).
Is the only good news (gospel) that the creatures who gave us lyric poetry, H-bombs, champagne, mustard gas, CERN, Walmart and Paradise Lost will eventually pass into nothingness, and the tired old Earth will get a chance to breathe again?
CH: This man is the Remueur. He is a character from the earlier days of Traditional Method champagne production. His job is to give each bottle a slight twist, one day to the right, two days later to the left. This has the effect of disturbing and nudging the sediment towards the bottle’s neck. After eight weeks in the Remueur’s care, another winemaker will – in a practised flourish – pop off the cap and plug his thumb in the bottle when the sediment and nothing more has escaped. The result is a crystal-clear, bottle-fermented champagne.
We are more than one of the many species. In our corner of the galaxy at least, the succession of emergences, formation of planets, and biological evolution have culminated in us. Is that hubristic of me? Very well, it is hubristic. The meticulous work of the Remueur proves it true beyond any doubt.
I believe in our right to keep-being for the same reason the drinker of our champagne (I am considering it delivered to a rather existential type who happens to be living in Paris around the 1920s) keeps sipping in sumptuous nightclubs rather than throwing himself in the Seine. Yes, he has petrified his liver and blackened his lungs. But he has lived authentically and well.
I see Gray in his somewhat illuminating stupidity as a Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Let not the world be a better place for our not-being! And let not the world return to a boring paradise – yet another boring paradise amongst billions – until it whimpers into the heat-death. Let us raise a glass to the world that – for all our faults – let us live. Let us live!
JS: The Remueur rotates the bottles until the champagne is “just right.” Gravitational waves rotate planetary bodies until the biosphere is the just the right temperature for primordial soup to serve up single cells, lively little devils that enjoin others—even dead cells—to join the party, and voila!—the effervescence of Life, the wit of the dying Oscar Wilde, in Paris, in 1900. And when someone handed Wilde, in his cell of a room, a glass of champagne, he dryly observed, “I am dying beyond my means.” On the way to one of my favourite pubs in London (The Harp, near Charing Cross), there is a marble monument to Wilde.
I suppose we could say that John Gray remains in the gutter, but some of us—in conversation with Oscar Wilde and with each other—are looking at the stars and the Goldilocks Zones they warm to life. Yes, human beings can be brutal bastards, but they are also what Byron calls “fiery dust” (stardust, it turns out), and capable of great goodness, beauty, and wit so lively that one simply cannot put a cork in it. That spark of intelligence is never so bright or suggestive as in the last line of the passage from Moby Dick we have not yet pulled into our conversation.
How many, think ye, have likewise fallen into Plato’s honey head, and sweetly perished there?
I would like to fall into that honey head with you in the final section of this dialogic trilogy. For now, I would simply observe the cultural and spiritual superiority of the Irish Harp over Nantucket harpoon, which brings me to lyre of Yeats, singer of death and life.
A barricade of stone or of wood; Some fourteen days of civil war: Last night they trundled down the road That dead young soldier in his blood: Come build in the empty house of the stare.
We had fed the heart on fantasies, The heart’s grown brutal from the fare, More substance in our enmities Than in our love; O honey-bees, Come build in the empty house of the stare.
CH: And so we reach wit. Preeminent delicacy of the Goldilocks Zone. Of all our phenomena of the head, wit is the caviar on Salome’s platter. Or perhaps the cucumber sandwiches. As perfect as the pointed pop of a bubble in our frothing, bready glass. Recall the words of Dom Perignon as he perfected the first iteration of the Method: Come quickly, for I am drinking the stars!
It strikes me that our ideas have developed too effervescently to even pretend to be consistent. We’ve tossed between cynicism and the will to full-blooded life as quickly as neurons firing in a real mind, and now this section has been lured away by the thought of a drink and died well beyond its means. It may be said we’re persons of no principles at all. And we may rest our conversation easy in the knowledge that Oscar would like us more than anything in the world.
JS: Let us, then, recall Melville’s fecund wit, his Goldilocks metaphor of the honey head where one perishes, but sweetly.
Only one sweeter end can readily be recalled—the delicious death of an Ohio honey-hunter, who seeking honey in the crotch of a hollow tree, found such exceeding store of it, that leaning too far over, it sucked him in, so that he died embalmed. How many, think ye, have likewise fallen into Plato’s honey head, and sweetly perished there?
Melville scholars apparently have yet to plumb the hermeneutical depths of the sperm whale’s honey head. I rely on a former girlfriend who first pitched me head-long into Melville’s unfathomable metaphor.
There’s a more obvious reading key to Melville’s philosophy: one can drown in the sweet, alluring, abstract Idealism of Plato’s head and philosophy—perhaps remain unwilling to give equal treatment to Locke (whom Melville admired) and others of his school, who, even though confining us to the empirical, not to the headier (excuse pun) and transcendent, keep us alive and grounded in the workable, material and human. We must spend most of our lives gazing at the world, not Platonically above it. Not that those escapes aren’t thrilling and intellectually stimulating, and worthy—but immersing oneself too long in that realm is killing, a drowning—and one allowing others to drown as well. One can die not just the way Melville’s sailors might— in physical, erotic, gooey spermatic honey— but in more ideological, transcendent ways as well.
Melville’s at heart a sailor and knows that if one sailor on the monkey ropes has his mind in the ether and let’s go, the entire interdependent group of sailors will drown. And most vitally related here is the chapter called “The Masthead,” where Ishmael stands guard on the top of the ship, the masthead, and is bathed in an airy transcendence, at one with the spiritual universe—but if his foot slips in this ecstatic merger, he drops into the sea and drowns. Beware, Melville warns.
Remember that Melville loathed Emerson, who far too often lectured on the glories and god-like release into a Transparent Eyeball moment—one with God, being God—losing one’s body, etc.—and wrote in NATURE directly on this eyeball experience and included a chapter on Idealism. This is great—Melville liked such moments—but considered—see The Confidence Man—Emerson a con man with ice in his veins, a dangerous pseudo-prophet proclaiming all that was was Good, even the snake. By doing so, Emerson lured his audience to a kind of death. Melville was a bit unfair to Emerson, who did, at other moments, face realities, but ....
The Eastern types, Melville suggests, might be enraptured with nirvana, but for him nirvana is death—in a honey head, but still death.
I have for decades been contemplating Professor Deborah Garfield's thoughts on Melville’s admonition to avoid the luminous spermaceti of philosophical idealism and abstraction. If one does not drown in it, one might also slip on the sperm-oil of subtlety and break one’s neck. There are, as Cleopatra knew, a thousand ways to “die” (perish, orgasm). Should one invite or fight them?
Is it impossible to pull the threads of this dialogue together? Have we been too associative and whimsical for our own good? Have we fallen into the honey head of dialogic abstraction because we are attempting to show that the highest achievement of the Goldilocks Zone is our own flukish minds: making and finding waves of gravity, waves of levity? And to think we have not yet even broached or breached (what whales do when they go airborne, the honey head looking at the stars, drinking them) the connection between sperm, spermaceti, panspermia, and the further fluke of life racing to Earth on some rogue meteor, glazed with bacteria, heading straight for what will become the Pacific.
CH: At the suggestion (challenge) our dialogue has been over-associative I have become rather childishly egged-on. Therefore, I respond to the perils of idealism thus:
When I heard the learn’d astronomer, When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me, When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them, When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room, How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick, Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself, In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
But has it really? I don’t think so. Why do we never answer each other’s questions? Dialogue is not a means to analysis or rigour. It is not exhaustive. Dialogue is an exploratory genre; as much a literary as a philosophical one. It is suited to realms where no position can be called correct, but we gain a lot by entertaining all possible positions at once. Dialogue is, like artistic inspiration, unlike learning, broadly an act of remembering. I would argue that it is best conducted in a state of negative capability. All this applies to the dialogues of Plato too. (An elegant system I’ve just devised, which I’m sure you’ll take great relish in tearing to bits.)
In the mountains the shortest way is from peak to peak, but for that route thou must have long legs.
Dialogues above all are a great game of Forster’s ‘Only Connect!’. The dialogue is the connection and the tying-together. And from Forster to Aptenodytes Forsteri, the Emperor Penguin:
JS: Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: “In the mountains the shortest way is from peak to peak, but for that route thou must have long legs. Proverbs should be peaks, and those spoken to should be big and tall.” Abstraction is the highest, most mountainous form of thinking. Kant’s sublime was the mind’s ability always to be N+1, where N is any actual mountain. The honey head of Plato is always +1 beyond any thing on Earth, and yet Goldilocks gave rise to it.
Cells, living and dead, only connect, and from our locked-down cells in England we still remain cellular organisms, connected only by dialogic forays into matters cetaceous and cosmological as our intense whimsies frolic, an odyssey that grows more and more joyful as it laterally drifts into the golden locks of possibility (“I dwell in possibility”, says Emily Dickinson, that leviathan of self-appointed lock-down in Amherst who turned her sequestered soul into a lyric poet. Is falling into one’s own honey head the highest form of intelligence and the greatest fluke of all?
CH: Losing your head to the sea-air at the masthead. Being a famous painter and insisting someone tie you there. Never leaving your bedroom in Amherst, Massachusetts. Living from a hut in Concord, Massachusetts, that you might live deliberately. Living from a hut in Norway that you might invent a new notation for truth-functions. In all these cases one might trip and fall – to a watery death, to a rocky death, to pneumonia, to insanity.
Are they all proof of the deadly allure of the Platonic rigmarole? Or simply of how far we’ll go for the sake of ideas or inspiration? Turner made good paintings, after all, of real sunsets in real skies. And isn’t it unfair to characterize Plato as some femme fatale or belle dame sans merci?
They are all proof, I suppose, of the desire amongst thinking types to live as a single cell – like one on a rogue comet on its terrible course for a planet named Earth. Giotto paints a comet as the Star of Bethlehem. In the Bayeux Tapestry, a comet portends the fall of King and England. Entertaining panspermia, which of these was the comet that brought life? What mysterious things are comets! What secrets they hide from the clever coffeehouse men who reined in their clockwork orbits. And what symbolism glows in that strange swift shine (Hardy).
JS: Like our sperm whale, a comet has a head (nucleus) and a tail to ponder. Like our sperm whale, the comet has its itinerary mapped out for it by gravitational forces and waves.
How uncanny that some comets even look a bit like a single sperm racing towards some planet to find its Goldilocks Zone, an egg to be fertilized that will hatch a living planet of—in our case—roughly 8.7 million species. In 1871 Lord Kelvin proposed the idea that life-bearing rocks racing through the solar system were the basis of interplanetary panspermia: Kelvin writes, "Dead matter cannot become living without coming under the influence of matter previously alive. This seems to me as sure a teaching of science as the law of gravitation.”
It’s wonderful to think of a cogitating mind as a kind of comet shooting through a galaxy of possibilities, unreinable itineraries of rare speculation. Here is Shakespeare’s Henry musing upon his own rarity: “By being seldom seen, I could not stir / But like a comet I was wonder'd at…” Shakespeare would have seen Halley’s comet in 1607. Did he ponder his own peculiar genius for being rarely seen (we really do know very little about his life) but an object of wonder for those who had just seen King Lear making waves on the stage? Shakespeare’s career in London was itself a “strange swift shine,” a meteoric rise to fame and fortune but, far more importantly, a quantum leap ahead in the history of consciousness, a singular plunge into the honey head of philosophy, epitomized in his gloomy Prince’s meditation on homo sapiens.
What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?
What did or does Shakespeare’s mind portend? Are his thirty-seven plays also a kind of panspermia? Writing alone in the George Inn pub (where our dialogic clan drank together on the Winter Solstice last year), did Shakespeare invent us, as Harold Bloom argues? What do we owe to the comet of consciousness that could write, four centuries before Stephen Hawking: “O god, I could be bound in a nut shell and count myself a king of infinite space”?
CH: When a vessel crosses deep water, its wake is gathered into two prongs like the compasses of Blake’s Urizen. Whatever the size of the vessel or its speed, the angle between the prongs is 2 · arcsin(1⁄3). Of all the insights attributable to Kelvin, this one always strikes me for its self-contained abstraction. Often I have stood on the bridge at King’s College and watched it proved as the punts and ducks edge along. It can be shown with no more than school geometry from the empirical fact that the wake-peaks on deep water move twice as fast as the wave-groups. Yet no-one had done so before. There is some affinity between theorems like that – which for all their abstraction pertain to the real world – and the plays of Shakespeare which as Woolf put it are spider-webs that ‘seem to hang there complete by themselves’.
Comets leave little wake in the interplanetary dust. To an observer at Yell’ham Height the ink of the sky is unscratched. Shakespeare too slides largely through the history-books like his father’s ghost. Shakespeare lived in an age of broken records. Is it a miracle, then, that Shakespeare’s wake is more than silence? That it is not a wake of gibberish – for all the incompetent record-keepers that dwell in its shadow, the actors who thought his words worth less (literally) than the paper they were written on, the dense groundlings who wouldn’t listen to some know-it-all in the crowd who told how the one who dresses up as a ghost and shouts ‘Remember me!’ is the playwright himself? That it’s not a wake of raving shepherds who would all attest to having seen a dazzling light?
I can only tell from personal experience how one’s first encounter with Shakespeare is a moment of panspermia. That year in our later teens when we devour the complete works does seem rather like a fireball from the sky striking a planet rich in amino acids and all the conditions requisite for life.
JS: Flukes and straight wakes are both, I take it, characterized by bi-lateral symmetry. Although I am far from qualified (but when did that ever stop me?) I would like to make the push from school to fractal geometry while keeping a steady eye on our whale, but for now I would like to remain in our honey head of abstraction, or follow that comet for a moment or two longer.
You doubtless know the hypothetic about a roomful of typewriting monkeys (proto sapiens?) that, given the fulness of time, would produce the Complete Works of Shakespeare. Compliments of Wikipedia:
The infinite monkey theorem states that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type any given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare. In fact, the monkey would almost surely type every possible finite text an infinite number of times. However, the probability that monkeys filling the observable universe would type a complete work such as Shakespeare's Hamlet is so tiny that the chance of it occurring during a period of time hundreds of thousands of orders of magnitude longer than the age of the universe is extremely low (but technically not zero).
Someone called Jesse Anderson is actually trying to do this with a roomful of virtual monkeys and so far he and his simian simulations have in fact produced “A Lover’s Complaint”—one of Shakespeare’s narrative poems. Are such efforts the death of genius and a certain comet/meteor-like brilliance in the firmament of creation, or are the virtual monkeys randomly hammering out Shakespeare’s play the non plus ultra of the Goldilocks Zone, or the highest achievement of our species? We are back to probability and orders of magnitude. Are the chattering monkeys producing a wake of gibberish? And yet the theorem is the result of someone who has fallen (a felix culpa, surely) into our honey head where Platonic and Pythagorean Theorems disport like gods in their heavens, or Kantian a priori forms of consciousness, or Hegel’s March of the Absolute Spirit, or Jung’s archetypes, and yet are anchored (shaped like flukes, those iron weights) in a world of actual—or rather virtual experiments.
I suppose I am a bit lost and wonder where we now are in the Goldilocks Zone of our own typewriting, producing not someone else’s works, but our own “original” dialogue. But cannot some future, virtual monkeys bang out the Collected Dialogues of Hewitt and Soderholm? What would that mean? And do the odds of such events occurring ever reach zero?
CH: The total number of literary works is only the smallest infinity, aleph-null. If we follow the infinite monkey crew in defining a literary work as a string of Latin letters, we biject literary works to the positive integers thus:
1. A 2. B … 26. Z 27. (space) 28. AA 29. AB …
so the total number of literary works cannot exceed the number of positive integers. We see there are larger infinities than this by the simple diagonal line argument of Cantor, who shows that even the decimal numbers between 0 and 1 have a greater cardinality:
Suppose some bijection exists. Write it out:
Now change each red digit; say add one to it. Read down the diagonal of new red digits (putting a 0. in front) and observe how we have created a new number which cannot be in the list because it differs from item 1 in the first decimal place, from item 2 in the second, etc. Therefore, there are more decimal numbers between 0 and 1 than there are positive integers.
We call the cardinality of the decimal numbers between 0 and 1 ‘two to the power of aleph null’. Two to the power of that is a larger infinity still, and we can go on and on creating even more infinite infinities ad infinita.
Digital computers provide a practical means to the infinity of gibberish of which all our literary works are substrings. Though our virtual simians have not yet come close (they have in fact found every nine-character string in the poem separately, a feat orders of magnitude less impressive) we can imagine a barn full of hard disks, randomly filled by a bank of (pseudo)random letter generators [the distinction becomes important again, perhaps] on which we can be almost sure A Lover’s Complaint and for that matter Finnegans Wake are contained.
In light of the monkey-barn, does the process of composition become merely one of choosing or one of editing? Was it not that anyway? After all, as I write there is only a finity of legitimate English words that can go next. Imagine trawling the dictionary and weighing the merit of each word in turn. (cf. mot juste.) Even if I splurge out one of Finnegan’s thunderclaps, consider the finite choice of letters. Anyway, in the wake of modernism, originality can be considered forfeit for many other and better reasons. And ‘original’ is a strong word for such an allusive text as this…
JS: To what extent is “smallest infinity” an onto-oxymoron, or at least a linguistic one?
“Original” is a fluke arcing two ways. Technically it can mean “deriving from origins” (its radical meaning, taking radical to mean rooted) but it can also mean precisely not deriving from origins and making a new beginning. Allusive texts can be flukes that point in both directions, as The Waste Land amply demonstrates. For T.S. Eliot, the radically new must be radically rooted in tradition in order for the individual talent to grow to fruition.
The fact that a hoard or monkeys could actually re-produce Finnegans Wake is so hilarious, depressing, stupendous, flukish, inevitable, and absurd that one does know whether to reach for one’s ivory-handle revolver or one’s beaker of dry martinis.
Einstein: What would the universe look like if I could ride a beam of light?
Soderholm: What would the universe look like if I could walk the Planck length?
Hawking observed to Arthur C. Clarke that there may be a limit on the “infinity” of Mandelbrot sets because nothing can be smaller than the Planck length. Does that seem right to you?
Always good to leave you with a bit of Blake:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour.
CH: I suppose Mr Eliot, the incorrigible old Tory he was, would have been sympathetic to the English Oak as the ultimate symbol of rootedness. In the second email you ever sent me you said you were obsessed with oak trees: I never asked what you meant. Woolf’s spiderwebs don’t seem to grow out of that stony rubbish but we see that mud and clay is the source of everything, once we lift the corner and peep.
Some theories of space suggest the notion of measure breaks down below the Planck length or that we have no business measuring in a realm where our laws of physics don’t apply. Ultimately the Planck Length is a numerological concoction of fundamental constants to make some value with units of length. It has garnered the mystical role: beyond which, infinitesimal. Like the smallest infinity aleph-null, lP is a gateway to a place of infinities where the theories of charlatans and tortured geniuses hold equal sway. That on the one hand and on the other the gravitationally-lensed apocalypsis of a young Einstein cycling through the Tuscan hills. We are the just-right between the infinitesimal and the infinite; boundless and bare, the numberline stretches far away.
JS: I wonder if the true honey head is not, paradoxically, hiding in the tail, that mighty fluke with which we began our leviathan dialogue? Those who study whales apparently photograph the trailing edge of their flukes to identity them. Each fluke is a kind of fingerprint because it is a distinctively-jagged narrative of the whale’s life at sea, including its occasional exposure to the outboard motor propellers of man, those rather bulky rotary flagella that whip eager boaters through the sea, often, ironically to watch whales. But is it the case that the trailing edge of these flukes is actually a fractal phenomenon, like the coast of the UK? Are fractals flukes or nature’s inherent mathematics? Are fractals in our optic nerve or in the world: self-same, iterating, spiralling, [gravitationally] wave-worn, distinctively jagged yet endlessly patterned: the quintessence of fluke, a word whose etymology is long overdue.
"lucky stroke, chance hit," 1857, also flook, said to be originally a lucky shot at billiards, of uncertain origin. Century Dictionary connects it with fluke (n.1) in reference to the whale's use of flukes to get along rapidly (to go a-fluking or some variant of it, "go very fast," is in Dana, Smyth, and other sailors' books of the era). OED (2nd ed. print) allows only that it is "Possibly of Eng. dialectal origin."
How perfect that the word “fluke” is “of unknown origin.” How fitting that a mathematician has called fractals “the fingerprint of God.” Or are they distinctively human fingerprints? After all, the word “fractal”—like all words—had to be invented to describe the phenomenon.
CH: I could believe that the honey-head hides in the grasp of the human hand:
This living hand, now warm and capable Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold And in the icy silence of the tomb, So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming night That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood So in my veins red life might stream again, And thou be conscience-calm’d–see here it is– I hold it towards you.
How do we reconcile this living hand with the icy gaze of forensic science? With men in white suits dusting for its fingerprints at some grave-robbery in which that aching rascal Johnny Keats was complicit? [excuse anachronism]
What an emergence is the human fingerprint! It would be romantic to think that it were a fractal consequence of the genetic code: that Thomasina’s computer program could replicate it by iteration from a transcript of one’s DNA. Just as a Mandelbrot set echoes inherent patterns in the structure mathematics. But it is not: it seems fingerprints are just as much a record of conditions during skin-formation in the womb. Sperm whales on the other hand are born into this world more in a mould; their fingerprint is hewn unique by individual clashes with motorboats.
And what fingerprints we leave: the artist’s signature and the je ne sais quoi in his brushwork. Inevitable greasy wakes in everything we manipulate. I bet too that the crime-scene of our depleted whale populations is teeming with evidence that trails right back to us.
JS: Your handy remarks call to mind a book for which I have been collected notes, a volume on the hand, the whole hand, and nothing but hand, so help me god. At some point in our evolution, we crawled our way out of the sea using fins that would become arms with hands at the end, and fingerprints at the ends of hands.
The head is indeed in the hand, especially if one rides the pretty little wave of etymology that curls together the word “comprehend”, “apprehend, “prehensile”, “grasping, and “seizing.”
mid-14c., "to understand, take into the mind, grasp by understanding," late 14c., "to take in, include;" from Latin comprehendere "to take together, to unite; include; seize" (of catching fire or the arrest of criminals); also "to comprehend, perceive" (to seize or take in the mind), from com "with, together," here probably "completely" (see com-) + prehendere "to catch hold of, seize," from prae- "before" (see pre-) + -hendere, from PIE root *ghend- "to seize, take." Related: Comprehended; comprehending. Compare sense development in German begriefen, literally "to seize," but, through the writings of the 14c. mystics, "to seize with the mind, to comprehend."
What we primates once grasped with our tails—to keep from falling—our minds now grasp mentally in order to fall into deep thought, the more perilous the thoughts, the better.
In the beginning was the hand. And what came first?—the opposable mind (“to be or not to be”) or the opposable thumb, or did they grow up together as homo sapiens learnt how to seize on branches and eventually on fractal branches as mathematics and iterated patterns entered the realm of comprehension?
Man’s fingerprints are, for better or for worse, everywhere—hence the Anthropocene (anthro-obscene?). From Cueva de los Manos (see Dialogic Imagination’s frontispiece) to Escher’s self-drawing hands
Has Escher captured the fractal fluke of our hands as they draw themselves to life, making us grasp the self-reflexive nature of artistic expression, a heady conception?
CH: Yes, the double-meaning of comprehendere is a perfect description: homo comprehendens, grasping (mentally) by means of grasping (manually) and vice versa. Hence the self-composing pair of Escher: note how two hands of the same chirality – the ambidextrous or ambisinister configuration – would make a more symmetric Ouroboros, but the artist contorts himself to paint the two hands of the same person. A fairly silly interpretation but the hands seem to encourage associative speculation. Are hands a symbol of mystery or enlightenment? Consider all the things we do with them: hold a prism to the light, cast spells, make inky marks on the page, play the piano, make bread, shake a masonic handshake, sign out a price across the trading pit, take a palm reading, commit a crime, incriminate oneself in a crime, …
I am reminded especially of the wild ink-stains on Ted Hughes’ writing table, which share with the Cueva de los Manos a primitive authenticity of mark-making that modern art will never quite recreate. In an age of clicking typewriters Hughes would only ever compose poetry with a messy inkpen. Pembroke College recently acquired the table for £5K – a bargain – to some outraged noises from the student press: the newspapers, predictably, couldn’t see why it was worth the money. I like to think that Newton too did his theoretical work in messy ink – reining-in the circles of the heavenly bodies through sweeping arcs on the page. Though he, on the other side of the paper, was reconstructing the dimensions of the Temple of Solomon.
I wave goodbye today with one more example of fractal chaos emerging out of a perfectly Newtonian, graspable setup. Here we have a single pendulum subjected to a driving force and a damping force. On the x-axis we vary the magnitude of damping; on the y-axis we plot the allowed periods of oscillation. What happens? Look:
(Source: Taylor, Classical Mechanics)
JS: I wonder how one could graph the damping and driving force of the oscillations of two minds creating a dialogue. Each reply forms both a driving and damping force that partly determines the next swing of the pendulum. What keeps the play of minds swinging? Can the dialectic oscillations of a dialogue become a perpetual motion machine and avoid entropic winding-down? Was that partly the point of the Platonic experiment in “classical mechanics”? The better to avoid the lone and level sands that cover Ozymandias? It seems as if fractal chaos will never run out of tales to tell until the last gravitational wave has passed by –
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay, Rage, rage against the dying of the light –
And if happy chaos can emerge from the movements of a single pendulum, how extraordinarily-felicitous is the chaos emerging from the surging seas of intellectual speculation, damping and driving two brains to, on the one hand, modulations and, on the other hand, explorations. But is “fluke” even the right word to use to capture the nearly impossible odds of our cerebral handiwork ever occurring even once?
CH: ‘Fluke’, taken to mean a lucky shot at billiards, is a divinely witty understatement of what it is.
To be lucky is not merely to be unlikely. There are many facts about the universe just as limitingly impossible as the emergence of this dialogue, to which we are utterly indifferent. (Camus: Whether the earth or the sun revolves around the other is a matter of profound indifference.) We must admit indifference, I suppose, to affairs of state and business transactions and lovers’ vows in the kingdom of our Pharaoh, now buried deep under sand.
To give something a name, one must first know what it means; I’m still not sure what it means or if it means anything at all to call us a fluke. Simply that a second case of James and Cal – on another planet – is nearly impossible, so the original case is ‘nearly impossible’ too? But we’re applying an attribute of conditionals – what might be the case – to what is the case, which is a category error. How would things be different if we weren’t a fluke? Would that put Beatrice at the centre of Paradise, instead of two Elizabethans tossing coins and looking rather out of place? Would it make a clockwork world, in which everything happened deliberately?
Oh, but there is no Paradise, you say. Yes there is: it can be found in a book by Dante the poet, who lived quite by chance in Tuscany in the year 1300.
JS: For all his Tuscan Catholicism, I suspect Dante—like all great poets—lived mostly in the paradise of imagination wedded blissfully to technical skill. What other paradise does one need? Paradise is indeed in a book. It is as real, and unreal, as a poetic text. Artistry is the opposite of a fluke—in worldly terms—but obviously the result of the greatest fluke of all in cosmic terms, no? Unless ‘God’ (mathematical structure following rules) plays pool—or dice—with the universe. Or is it a case of “pair of dice—lost”? A universe where nothing makes sense, even mathematical sense, and that’s why quantum mechanics will never be married up to any other major theory in physics.
At this point I am as lost as Dante in the dark wood in Canto 1 of Inferno regarding what is a fluke and what is not a fluke. I might as well be trying to measure the location and speed of some tricky devil of a particle. Where do you think we are? Inside the whale’s inner sanctum?
CH: I suppose we are with the worn working hands of Tashtego as he slops around in the honey-head and glops out bucketfuls of slimy head-stuff. Maybe now the cavity is running dry.
For those who developed it, quantum mechanics was a case of pair of dice – regained: a deliverance from the clockwork inferno of absolute determinism.
Even if it’s meaningless to name the probability of the present, it makes sense to ask, how many other ways could it have been? In physics, we give this number – or rather its order of magnitude – a name: entropy.
Ludwig Boltzmann, the father of statistical mechanics, died by his own hand. His grave in Vienna is marked with a frowning bust. And above the pedestal, these symbols appear:
S = k · log W
JS: In some unimaginably-distant future, those carved symbols will live up to their meaning, and return to cooling stardust, and from there to entropic randomness, and from there to photons winking out one by one until a universal darkness covers all. A fitting epitaph for the universe? Is taking one’s own life the quintessence of fluke? Could the father of statistical mechanics have estimated the probability that he would eventually destroy the father of statistical mechanics?
We began this dialogue by making waves, by watching other phenomena make waves—including a whale’s fluke—and now we seem to be winding down, in every sense, as a concession to non-being. Philip Larkin’s last words were, apparently: “I go to the inevitable.”
CH: In physics there is no not-being. Only rearrangement, transfiguration. We change partners but the dance goes on. (Change so many times we forget our steps; the band improvises on improvisations and now plays only a postmodern cacophony?) The father of thermodynamics would know with certainty that his vital heat would only become fluctuations elsewhere, a little more diffuse than before. We have // a conservation // of Energy. Caesar becomes clay. A drowned harpooneer becomes something rich and strange at the bottom of the sea. Even, at the horizon of a black hole:
You see, my son, here time turns into space!
Like Zeno’s arrow, the world approaches darkness asymptotically: it takes an eternity to get there. Toward end-times, one can image a period over which the probability of Cal and James re-emerging – small to start with – halves. Over a second period of the same length, it halves again. After some number of halvings I suppose God would stop winding the clockwork key. Let the air out.
Eliot writes of a whimper but his best Ending is not a whimper at all:
Quick now, here, now, always— A condition of complete simplicity (Costing not less than everything) And all shall be well and All manner of thing shall be well When the tongues of flames are in-folded Into the crowned knot of fire And the fire and the rose are one.
JS: Thus concludes our dialogic gospel, according to fluke.