Why 2 (or Self-Similarity; or orororororor……. ;)

I was fortunate to take an intermediate-level survey course in thermodynamics with one of the most influential scientists of the post-WWII generation, I mean this guy was at the center of research for combustion and fueling, kind of combining modern thermo and fluid dynamics, at NASA through the rise of the space age and jet propulsion. Early in the quarter he gave this lecture, just in a small class of 20 or so young engineers, that began with an explanation that while he can’t possibly fit a lifetime of knowledge into a single class over a relatively small time period, we should trust that we will learn plenty of the material deemed necessary to get good grades in the class itself by default if we just go to class and do the work.

What he meant was he would touch on topics that we weren’t prepared to fully grasp, teaching us far more than we would need to pass his tests. His philosophy is that the mind is the most complex closed object in the universe, and if we listened to him with an open mind, the brain has an incredible capability to keep knowledge stored away until it could be used properly even if it’s a decade down the road, and by implication the brain also has an innate ability to know when knowledge that you would never have imagined you were able to retain can help you understand life better in the future.

He called this inspiration, and I indeed think about that lecture nearly every day. Then he shared with us one of the secrets of the universe, a concept loosely termed scaling invariance over a metric space, and he told us we might not fully appreciate this concept for a very long time, but if we remember to think about it and look for its representations, we will have an essential tool for understanding why things are the way they are. Scale invariance, or self-similarity, and ideas about connectedness or more deeply gauge symmetry or mirror symmetry and S-duality: these are essential properties that allow matter and energy to have structure at sub-atomic levels, and explains why this structure scales up to describe molecules and life and consciousness and planets and stars and galaxies.

In its most intuitive form, it’s the metric we define as distance or size in a given dimension, measurements we can make to determine how far away something is on earth but also how far things are in space; and then how can we define a radius of an atom or how solid ice takes up more volume than liquid water despite having the same molecules. It can go even deeper to relate to particle theory and gravity and spacetime, human memory and computer memory, dimensionality and rank of things called number fields crucial to encryption security; economic theory, human behavior, evolution; why there is no such thing as ‘zero or nothingness in the most general sense’ but rather different scales of infinity.

Now I’ve diverged from the actual point here, and that is: don’t worry about understanding all of this or concluding that you cannot now and will not ever understand it because a lot of intelligence is convincing your brain of its own immense power, then using it positively towards yourself and those around you. True knowledge while we are here on Earth reduces quite nicely to human interaction, shared experience, happiness, kindness, altruism, empathy, compassion and all that good stuff. Society can make progress, but time scales as well and it took billions of years to achieve consciousness in real time yet we have the power to destroy the Earth many times over in an instant. It takes a lot more than money and people yelling at each other on TV or the Internet. It takes genuine cooperation and a mind open to dynamic adaptation and learning and filtering out noise and synthesizing experience.

It takes fundamental change in the way we think about ourselves and the world around us.

It takes unity.

-BB

On Postermodernism (Or Chaos Part One)

It is a misconception to think of postmodernism as a cohesive movement or umbrella under which some arrayed vector field points generally towards a common direction, a vision or goal or set of principles: literary, moral, thematic or what-have-you like the many preceding literary movements that whether because of the separation of time and other movements in between seem to have definable, finite, focused convergence toward a common worldview amongst its artists (ie romanticism, Victorianism, modernism). Or perhaps it’s more like we take a common set of basis representative works for a particular era and assume this finite set spans the entire space of the movement such that the pertinent knowledge is effectively filtered into said major representative works. This is indeed how knowledge works sometimes.

Of course, it’s often reductive to apply broad labels spanning connected places and times simply because our brains are hard-wired for this kind of linear-temporal ordered narrative of history. In any case, as certain technologies advanced writing and as literacy spread over time and as different groups of people gained the freedom, through loosening oppression, to explore their history/culture and hone their voice and craft (that there are far fewer famous women novelists in literature is not in any way a function of a gap in ability, and is wholly due to the fact that women had no way of disseminating their viewpoints in their appointed role as housewives and mothers throughout much of history, a role forced upon them so that men could go off on power trips both constructing and destructing civilizations with equal fervor and aplomb because of superior physical strength lingering from biological evolution but rendered null with the awakening of the conscious being and consequent branching of the evolution of the mind that separates humankind from all predecessors), literature as a whole branched more and more to accommodate the vastly disparate perspectives that define humanity’s existence.

I cannot overstate the significance of this progression towards shared perspective and experience, of the spread of knowledge in all its infinite forms, where individual, independent views and stories exist as separate entities through which a discerning mind can begin to synthesize knowledge and find universal themes and meaning while remaining cognizant that every mind is unique.

This brings me (by commodius vicus of recirculation…) back to postmodernism. Postmodernism should first be taken literally: the era of literature beginning with the Cold War that immediately followed modernism. Easy enough, and relative closeness of time of publication is really the only true invariant trait of postmodernism. At first, it was a reactionary movement, but the nature of the reaction created divergence rather than convergence. Postmodernism is primarily a leap of faith into exploration and experimentation and idiosyncrasy that represented the broader shifts in thought brought upon humans with the exponential growth of technology, science, and society, but also of course by the infinite void of wars and world-destroying weapons.

Regarding literature, the events of the first half of the 20th century catalyzed a denouncement of more classic structure, form, and language, but what emerged is much more aligned with how the universe actually works: ordered chaos. I have a fairly specific meaning when I invoke chaos: in a broad sense the philosophical implications of the discovery (and subsequent ubiquitous supporting evidence) that, even if we ignore random processes which certainly exist, many deterministic systems actually functioning in reality, besides often being dependent on unaccountably innumerable variables (but at least we can model these and even probabilistically so), abide by chaotic dynamics. The bane of the weathervane is just this: even if we can take a slice of time and call it time zero and measure every significant variable affecting climate with an aim toward prediction, chaos by it’s very definition stops us dead in our tracks eclipsing any hope of predictive value beyond local time scales (days, sometimes hours). This is one of the beautiful and damning secrets of the universe, the ultimate pro/con: chaotic systems are deterministic such that we can uncover their underlying structure and properties globally and even assign values to variables at time zero, but to attain the complexity necessary for a universe to evolve, these systems have to be otherwise unconstrained and specifically, among other things, they have the property that arbitrarily small perturbations (limit at infinity nonzero) in the initial values of aforementioned variables change the evolution of the system unpredictably and over the long run this often means vastly diverging results.

In other words, nature can define a system that will dynamically evolve over time, and it can set the initial values itself, but it won’t necessarily know the results with these values, hence the whole idea of experimentation. For us, because of inherent measurement error, even when minimized to seemingly negligible scales (but never zero), every single initial value will be off by some non-zero factor and any single error in a single variable renders prediction futile. We want to know properties that are invariant over all possible results. We will continue to explore self-similarity/scale invariance as core concepts leading to a comprehensive universal worldview throughout this blog. Human beings matter, each one no more or less than any others. Life matters. Everything matters.

-BB