Reconciling the science of the very large with the science of the very small, with a sidewise possibility that everything we experience as reality is a holographic projection.
By Maria Popova
“It seems to be difficult for any one to take in the idea that two truths cannot conflict,” the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell wrote in the middle of the nineteenth century as she contemplated the human search for truth. Since her era — a time predating the very notion of a galaxy, when we thought our tiny parochial Solar System was the full extent of the universe — this search has taken us into new horizons of knowledge, which have only unlatched new questions, tangling some into confounding paradoxes — none more disquieting to our understanding of reality than the black hole information paradox.
When Stephen Hawking discovered black hole radiation in the 1970s, the idea that black holes slowly emanate energy contradicted the core mathematical model of black holes as regions of spacetime that swallow all physical information. This paradox cast into stark conflict the two great truth-models of modern physics: Einstein’s general relativity, or the science of the very large, holding true on the scale of galaxies, and quantum field theory, or the science of the very small, holding true on the scale of particles. Hawking himself devoted his life to reconciling this fundamental conflict in a unified theory of everything, which he never completed. Another proposed solution to the information paradox is the holographic principle, which, if correct, would render everything we experience as reality a holographic 3D projection of information encoded on the flat rim of the universe.
In this lovely animated primer from TED-Ed, astrophysicist Fabio Pacucci breaks down the black hole information paradox, the essential theories from which it arises, and the disorienting challenges it poses to our fundamental understanding of reality.
“The essential cultural discrimination is not between having and not having or haves and have-nots, but between the superfluous and the indispensable. Wisdom… is always poised upon the knowledge of minimums; it might be thought to be the art of minimums.”
By Maria Popova
“I have always had a quarrel with this country not only about race but about the standards by which it appears to live,” James Baldwin told Margaret Mead as they sat down together to reimagine democracy for a post-consumerist world. A generation later, the poet, farmer, and ecological steward Wendell Berry — a poet in the largest Baldwinian sense — picked up the time-escalated quarrel in his slim, large-spirited book The Hidden Wound (public library) to offer, without looking away from its scarring realities, a healing and conciliatory direction of resistance to a culture in which our enjoyment of life is taken from us by the not-enoughness at the hollow heart of consumerism, only to be sold back to us at the price of the latest product, and sold in discriminating proportion along lines of stark income inequality.
It occurs to me that, for a man whose life from the beginning has been conditioned by the lives of black people, I have had surprisingly little to say about them in my other writings. Perhaps this is justifiable — there is certainly no requirement that a writer deal with any particular subject — and yet it has been an avoidance. When I have written about them before I have felt that I was doing little more than putting down a mark, leaving an opening, that I would later have to go back to and fill. For whatever reasons, good or bad, I have been unwilling until now to open in myself what I have known all along to be a wound — a historical wound, prepared centuries ago to come alive in me at my birth like a hereditary disease, and to be augmented and deepened by my life.
Berry recounts growing up around a black man named Nick, who worked for Berry’s grandfather. Nick, to whom he dedicates the book, was a benediction of presence during Berry’s most formative years — a hard-working man with a buoyant imagination and an uncommonly cheerful mindset. The small child befriended the large fifty-something man with the ardor of kinship chosen and not dictated by blood. Berry recalls his love of Nick with sweetness undiminished by the flight of decades:
One of my two or three chief ambitions was to be with him… I dogged his steps. So faithful a follower, and so young and self-important and venturesome as I was, I must have been a trial to him. But he never ran out of patience.
This bond had a deep impact on Berry as a writer and a human being, shaping both his poetry and the personhood from which it springs. He reflects:
The great benefit in my childhood friendship with Nick… was not an experience of sympathy, though that was involved and was essential, but a prolonged intense contact with lives and minds radically unlike my own, and radically unlike any other that I might have known as a white child among white adults. They don’t figure in my memory and in my thoughts about them as objects of pity, but rather as friends and teachers, ancestors you could say, the forebears of certain essential strains in my thinking.
From Nick, who had been working hard since childhood for the smallest of wages and with the slimmest of prospects for living any other way, Berry learned one of the hardest, most beautiful truths about living a rich life — a kind of existential contemplative practice of inclining the mind, whatever the conditions of the body, toward delight. A century after Hermann Hesse placed attendance to life’s little joys at the center of living with gladsome presence, Berry writes:
There were two heavy facts that Nick accepted and lived with: life is hard, full of work and pain and weariness, and at the end of it a man has got to go farther than he can imagine from any place he knows. And yet within the confines of those acknowledged facts, he was a man rich in pleasures. They were not large pleasures, they cost little or nothing, often they could not be anticipated, and yet they surrounded him; they were possible at almost any time, or at odd times, or at off times. They were pleasures to which a man had to be acutely and intricately attentive, or he could not have them at all. There were the elemental pleasures of eating and drinking and resting, of being dry while it is raining, of getting dry after getting wet, of getting warm again after getting cold, of cooling off after getting hot. There was pleasure to be taken in good work animals, as long as you remembered the bother and irritation of using the other kind. There was pleasure in the appetites and in the well-being of good animals. There was pleasure in quitting work. There were certain pleasures in the work itself. There was pleasure in hunting and in going to town, and in visiting and in having company. There was pleasure in observing and remembering the behavior of things, and in telling about it. There was pleasure in knowing where a fox lived, and in planning to run it, and in running it. And… Nick knew how to use his mind for pleasure; he remembered and thought and pondered and imagined. He was a master of what William Carlos Williams called the customs of necessity.
In these times one contemplates it with the same sense of hope with which one contemplates the sunrise or the coming of spring: the image of a man who has labored all his life and will labor to the end, who has no wealth, who owns little, who has no hope of changing, who will never “get somewhere” or “be somebody,” and who is yet rich in pleasure, who takes pleasure in the use of his mind! Isn’t this the very antithesis of the thing that is breaking us in pieces? Isn’t there a great rare humane strength in this — this humble possibility that all our effort and aspiration is to deny?
Berry takes great care to address the reasonable objection that, given his position as a white man of moderately comfortable means, his portrait of Nick may be misconstrued as romanticizing poverty. (Baldwin acknowledged a kindred objection in contrasting the warmhearted poor of Istanbul with the wealthy but unsympathetic Swiss he had encountered during his relatively privileged life in Europe.) “I am uncomfortably aware,” Berry notes, “of the dangers and difficulties in a white man’s attempt to write so intimately of the life of a black man out of a child’s memories a quarter of a century old.” And yet, across this vast ocean of time and difference, Berry lands on shared shore of tremendous, boldly countercultural wisdom:
This much is clear to me: insofar as I am capable of feeling such pleasures as I believe Nick felt, I am strong; insofar as I am dependent on the pleasures made available by my salary and the things I own, I am weak. I feel much more secure in those pleasures for which I am dependent on the world, as Nick was for most of his, than in those for which I am dependent on the government or on a power company or on the manufacturers of appliances. And I am far from conceding anything to those who assume that the poor or anyone else can be improved by recourse to that carnival of waste and ostentation and greed known as “our high standard of living.” As Thoreau so well knew, and so painstakingly tried to show us, what a man most needs is not a knowledge of how to get more, but a knowledge of the most he can do without, and of how to get along without it. The essential cultural discrimination is not between having and not having or haves and have-nots, but between the superfluous and the indispensable. Wisdom, it seems to me, is always poised upon the knowledge of minimums; it might be thought to be the art of minimums.
Lying there among the trees, despite a learned wariness towards anthropomorphism, I find it hard not to imagine these arboreal relations in terms of tenderness, generosity and even love: the respectful distance of their shy crowns, the kissing branches that have pleached with one another, the unseen connections forged by root and hyphae between seemingly distant trees. I remember something Louis de Bernières has written about a relationship that endured into old age: “we had roots that grew towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossom had fallen from our branches we found that we were one tree and not two.” As someone lucky to live in a long love, I recognize that gradual growing-towards and subterranean intertwining; the things that do not need to be said between us, the unspoken communication which can sometimes tilt troublingly towards silence, and the sharing of both happiness and pain. I think of good love as something that roots, not rots, over time, and of the hyphae that are weaving through the ground below me, reaching out through the soil in search of mergings. Theirs, too, seems to me then a version of love’s work.
Beneath the canopy, Macfarlane marvels at the slim contour of empty space around each tree’s crown — a phenomenon known as crown shyness, “whereby individual forest trees respect each other’s space, leaving slender running gaps between the end of one tree’s outermost leaves and the start of another’s.”
“What is needed in our very complex modern society is calm consideration, with readiness to call dogmas in question and freedom of mind to do justice to the most diverse points of view.”
By Maria Popova
“We must mend what has been torn apart, make justice imaginable again in a world so obviously unjust, give happiness a meaning once more,” Albert Camus wrote as he contemplated how to live honorably thorough shameful times at the peak of World War II, a quarter century before he became the second-youngest Nobel laureate.
It took another seer of uncommon insight and unrelenting humanism to consider this necessary mending work as the maelstrom of injustice was only just beginning to seethe in the entrails of the world. That is what Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970), who would himself receive the Nobel Prize shortly after the war for his “varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought,” examines in the preface to the 1935 edition of his book-length essay In Praise of Idleness (public library) — his insightful inquiry into the relationship between leisure and social justice.
Shortly after Germany withdrew from the League of Nations and Hitler instituted his most bigoted racial laws, Russell writes:
The world is suffering from intolerance and bigotry, and from the belief that vigorous action is admirable even when misguided; whereas what is needed in our very complex modern society is calm consideration, with readiness to call dogmas in question and freedom of mind to do justice to the most diverse points of view.
Three decades later, as his ideas matured under the ferment of a war-savaged world, Russell would acknowledge that certain points of view are so unjust as to be unworthy of consideration in his remarkable response to a fascist. But he devoted his long life to the peaceable conciliation of humanity’s most divisive and self-destructive impulses — nowhere more pointedly than in the manifesto he issued a decade after Hitler’s death, when an even more explosive threat was looming over Earth in the midst of the Cold War.
Addressing the measureless danger of weapons of mass destruction, Russell enlisted a dozen of the world’s leading scientific minds in co-signing this document of reason and humanism, calling on world leaders to find peaceful paths to resolving international conflict. Albert Einstein signed the manifesto, now known as the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, days before his death in April 1955. It was presented at a London press conference on July 9, 1955, and became the guiding spirit of the inaugural Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, co-founded by Russell and held two years later. Its text contains an enduring appeal to our noblest nature, our deepest shared stakes, and the singular human faculty of foresight, evocative of Maya Angelou’s wakeful and mobilizing poem “A Brave and Startling Truth.”
We shall try to say no single word which should appeal to one group rather than to another. All, equally, are in peril, and, if the peril is understood, there is hope that they may collectively avert it.
We have to learn to think in a new way. We have to learn to ask ourselves, not what steps can be taken to give military victory to whatever group we prefer, for there no longer are such steps.
There lies before us, if we choose, continual progress in happiness, knowledge, and wisdom. Shall we, instead, choose death, because we cannot forget our quarrels? We appeal as human beings to human beings: Remember your humanity, and forget the rest.
A generation later, with our species having barely survived two World Wars and the Cold War, with the even graver new danger of planetary ecological collapse on the horizon, the great physician, etymologist, poet, and essayist Lewis Thomas would echo these sentiments in his inspiriting yet cautionary reflection on the wonders of possibility.