Knowing, and Observing

The artists of the Renaissance said man’s main concern should be for men, and yet there are other things of interest in the world. Even the artists appreciate sunsets, and the ocean waves, and the march of the stars across the heavens. There is then some reason to talk of other things sometimes.

As we look into these things we get an aesthetic pleasure from them directly on observation. There is also a rhythm and a pattern between the phenomena of nature which is not apparent to the eye, but only to the eye of analysis; and it is these rhythms and patterns which we call Physical Laws.

..Richard Feynman

Exposing people to good things doesn’t usually achieve anything unless people already believe them to be good.  For example, take copies of a very good book and leave one on a tidy, well presented stand in the middle of a road.  People would simply drive around it, irritated, to avoid a collision.  They know it cannot have value, being given away, and left to strangers.

Deposit a pile of gold bars in the same place and they will be immediately carted away on sight.  This is because, jettisoning all their former reasoning, the same people already believe gold to have great value.  If years later, after they have fallen out with their families, tired of large rooms full of freeloaders, or plastic surgeries and holidays, and been declared bankrupt by suprisingly well-heeled accountants they might realise they were wrong: it turns out gold had no lasting value to them.  At least, not in the amount which they found.  They would do the same again, having never changed their original beliefs, because everything would have turned out alright – if only they could have collected more gold!

Only recently I went to the Louvre in Paris and found a massive crowd of American and Japanese tourists scrambling to take photos of themselves in front of the Mona Lisa, a small painting behind plexiglass.  But outside in the corridor were two very large paintings of comparable quality by the same artist, available for close examination.  Nobody was interested because the Mona Lisa, as they certainly knew, was far more interesting.  It was probably not even the original.

This week I meant to assemble a withering attack on Darwinian randomness but when I put all the research together and saw it was an overwhelmingly strong case, exposing a hundred years of bias, and even fraud – both willful and accidental – of utterly desperate escapist reasoning, I realised it would be a complete waste of time.  Those who refused to believe would find a tiny loophole of doubt somewhere; those already realising the 19th century guesswork has long been torn asunder would continue to believe it, but primarily for whatever reasons they did before reading my essay.

In the mind of the atheists, the only alternative to Darwin is an old man in sandals on a hill, capriciously adjusting the universe to fit his violent moodswings.  This idea is at the heart of their mockery of religion, whereas much of religion is based on a solid biological footing – and the reason the religious minded generally live longer than atheists, who not only have the lowest member retention rate of any worldview-based demographic, but the highest suicide rate. With a rock on one side and a hard place on the other, they have no time for subtleties because their intellectual worldview is at stake: any means must justify the end.  Ironically, the only people who actually take such a literal view of an ancient metaphor, are the diehard modern atheists!

So instead I started re-reading one of my favourite books, by the physicist Richard Feynman, called Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman? , a collection of his adventures both in the world of physics, and other unrelated, intriguing, spheres of thought.  Even if you’ve never heard of Feynman, you will have heard of the O-ring problem in the space shuttle Challenger’s fuel cells, which caused the rocket to explode on takeoff.


Richard Feynman as part of the Presidential Commission on the Challenger accident. Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

It was Feynman who deduced that the rubber sealant material shrunk in the cold and took time to reform; under pressure, NASA had scheduled the launch for a very cold morning against advice.  The reduced diameter of the rings allowed fuel to leak, leading to a disaster.  He also worked in Los Alamos on the Manhattan Project during the war, and later shared in a Nobel Prize; gifted with astounding mathematical abilities – his brain even showed him equations broken down into colour – he is regarded as one of the top ten physicists of all time.  In the divorce proceedings of his second marriage, his wife complained that he did integral calculus all the time.. while driving, even while lying awake in bed.

After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Feynman went though a “depression” period in which he felt all planning was useless in the likelihood of much more powerful bombs being used again.  He emerged from this bleak period and was to visit Japan, showing great interest in Japanese culture, and choosing an authentic Japanese hotel in preference to the American one.  In one episode the female Japanese attendants showed no surprise or consternation at all when unexpectedly encountering an exuberant naked guest emerging from a bath, in stark contrast to the way their American counterparts would have shrieked in horror and called for backup.  “How uncivilised we are,” Feynman mused to a colleague, seemingly oblivious to the massive irony.

Expecting physicists to make a mysterious universe conprehensible is a little like hoping a team of mathematicians will compose a beautiful symphony.  It shows we fail to understand the nature of the task, and not only try and delegate a challenge every bit as personal as physical exercise, but apply to it the wrong kind of mind altogether.

As we know, matter is not solid at all, but composed almost entirely of something else.  What it is, and how such a colossal quantity of it comes to be arranged in specific formations we don’t yet know.  Scaling up the almost infitesimal speck of subatomic “matter” at the heart of a comparatively planet sized ball of energy within a proton or electron and expecting it to behave like household objects we understand is pointless, because the qualities of the latter are simply an illusion created by the former.  Everything we label  matter must have some comprehensible element about it, or it could never interact with our consciousness at all.  Our perception is based on space and time, neither of which seems native to the underlying material; only as these infitesimal specks accumulate do they become perceptible to our senses.  This is still something of a trick which physics accepts as reality, but has never actually explained.


Art in the service of physics: inspired by MC Escher, this wonderful illustration communicates the supposed continuity between particle and wave (N Brunner, J Simmonds)

Art is that endeavour in which consciousness imposes an otherwise intangible element of itself onto matter in such a way that it can be decoded by others: it is an alchemy which maths can never analyse or create.  Computer generated art is unconvincing and soon tires a mind searching for meaning, and in slavishly realistic art the artist is lost altogether, indistingsuishable from some other stranger’s super-realism.  Genuine art cannot be defined with equations because it creates a superior impact to them, stimulating and uplifting because some mind was intent on finding his reflection within us.  Without this sympathy we lose interest; stimulating a broader and more long lived reflection is the whole purpose of art.  This kind of resonance must be the same as that witnessed in particles – after all, resonance is resonance!

brain viewing ugly

Brain activity, when faced with dismal or ugly scene

The concepts of a wave or a particle are only imaginations; an electron can behave as one or the other, and even both at the same time; light, too has such a duality while remaining singularly essential to biological life.  Their components remain imaginary concepts, albeit useful ones, because whatever they are, they cannot be only a particle or only a wave.  It is hard to imagine both at the same time: how could anything be solid, isolated, measured in space, and a regional disturbance, measured over time?  If particles become entangled and behave collaboratively like particles in a connected wave, it means there is an underlying form we still have not identified.  Physics does not pretend to overcome this barrier with equations, and only attempts to make the effects predictable, given other assumptions to hold the goalposts in place.  The physics of galaxies is not the same as the physics of our desk, and neither explains the weird behaviour of subatomic particles.

That these particles can disappear and reappear in infitesimally small fractions of a second shows our sense of time is granular, only appearing to be continuous because our brains are synchronised to the same rhythm.  The Brain Book, by Rita Carter (p187) claims our brain takes almost 500ms to process incoming stimuli, but backdates the perceived experiences so that they appear to have taken place immediately.  Of course this seems impossible because the brain is taking actual time to complete the task.  Nevertheless, if you poke yourself with a pin, you can be sure that the pain you feel at that moment, for about half a second, is nothing but an ingenious trick!

brain viewing beauty

Brain activity when viewing beauty

Working with an older physicist named Wheeler and attempting to solve a problem involving electrons emitting energy when shaken, the young Feynman found it perfectly reasonable to propose that packets of energy could travel backwards in time to balance the equations.  He soon found himself lecturing to Einstein and Pauli although the problem, after a lifetime spent working on it, remained unsolved.  Time is certainly an elastic concept, both in the brain and the “material” world.

The discovery that particles can be entangled over any distance means our ideas about space also do not apply on the subatomic scale.  Exactly opposite to what we would expect, space – as well as time – can become meaningless at the level of the very small.  Small particles should have far more trouble exchanging information over vast distances than we do, but they actually have no trouble at all.

Screen pixels show us a covincing and useful image, but though we can imagine half or a third of a pixel existing, they cannot be shown on the screen itself, and so such states disappear unless combined into larger forms.  Our  mind must have a similar granular, stepped nature, meaning we cannot hope to comprehend reality until we know the granularity and undulations in the mirror we must use when beholding its reflection – the mind.  Even after decades of intense effort by the brightest physicists and enough books to fill the Grand Canyon, we are forced to examine ourselves before we can really know the universe.

Even then, human language is inadequate to express what we found: the experience is non transferable.  The mystical language of the Vedas was expressed in twilight language, to which the keys had to be understood first.  Jesus’ revelations were in parables, and Buddha urged us to seek within.  There is no description of the mystical state in the few treatises which mankind has that compare to the experience itself, and the inverse is true of Darwinism: despite the endless stream of books and lectures and museums, there is no reproducable reality behind them.  Evolution remains a fact, while Darwinism is simply escapist literature.

The most successful minds in physics were not typical of mathematicians: Einstein was a mystic and humanist; Feynman was an adventurer, musician and artist.  In fact at the age of 44 he decided to draw, not for any exercise of faculties but because:

I wanted very much to learn to draw, for a reason that I kept to myself: I wanted to convey an emotion I have about the beauty of the world.  It’s difficult to describe because it’s an emotion.

It’s analogous to the feeling one has in religion that has to do with a god that controls everything in the universe: there’s a generality aspect that you feel when you think about how things that appear so different and behave so differently are all run ‘behind the scenes’ by the same organization, the same physical laws. It’s an appreciation of the mathematical beauty of nature, of how she works inside; a realization that the phenomena we see result from the complexity of the inner workings between atoms; a feeling of how dramatic and wonderful it is.

It’s a feeling of awe — of scientific awe — which I felt could be communicated through a drawing to someone who had also had that emotion. I could remind him, for a moment, of this feeling about the glories of the universe.

..Richard Feynman

His first drawing shows the hold which the conceptual mind usually has over the observing one, and which deters most people from attempting the required internal change:


An eye is known to be an oval inside which is a circle; a mouth is known to be two shapes divided by a horizontal line, and so on.  The mind observes the features of a face, but falls back on its preconceived ideas, which exist only in the imagination.

Undaunted, Feynman persisted and became an accomplished artist.  Realising his work would be uncritically liked if it were known to have come from a well known physicist, he created the nom de plume of Ofey, from the French “au fait” meaning, “it is done”.  Within only a year or two he had calmed the conceptual one and awakened his observing mind, along with the fine motor control to express himself.  I believe he continued to draw until the end of his life.

feynman-art (17)[2]

Beliefs are strong, and open minds rare.  A much discussed 1981 talk by Colin Patterson at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, to the Systematics Discussion Group was secretly recorded and a transcript disseminated, by a creationist.  Most notoriously Patterson was said to have asked, “can you tell me anything about evolution, any one thing which is true?”

I tried that question on the geology staff at the Field Museum of Natural History and the only answer I got was silence.

I tried it on the members of the Evolutionary Morphology Seminar in the University of Chicago, a very prestigious body of Evolutionists, and all I got there was silence for a long time, and eventually one person said, “I do know one thing – it ought not to be taught in high school”.

The transcript’s accuracy was derided in evolutionary circles, which cast doubt on the quote itself; in the wake of Mayr’s 1981 paper in Science criticising what he saw as the “exceedingly tenuous connection” cladistics and phenetics had to genuine evolutionary theory, Patterson actually intended to compare the vapid effect of systematics with that of pre-Darwinian creationism, which he described as a void that explained nothing.

And yet he did not dispute the authenticity of the notorious quote itself.  In explaining its context in 1993 Patterson claimed the question still mattered. He had indeed expressed an agnosticism about evolution, and in 1981 had said:

“I had been working on this stuff for twenty years, and there was not one thing I knew about it”.

About iain carstairs

I have a great interest in both scientific advances and the beauty of religion, and created about 15 years ago with the aim of finding common ground between the scientist and the believer, and to encourage debate between the two sides.
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5 Responses to Knowing, and Observing

  1. Another amazing article Iain. Please keep them coming. I love the discussion about the granularity of our minds, I’ve never thought of it that way.
    The ransformation that Feynman had between the two drawings is really spectacular.

    • Yes, he really got somewhere. In one of his first classes they did an exercise where you draw a model, without looking at the paper. Afterwards he claimed never to have looked down, and the others said, Feynman, you’re so full of it – I bet you looked!

      They checked his paper and sure enough, he hadn’t looked – the moment his pencil touched the paper the lead in the pencil broke, so all he had to show for his session was a blank sheet!

  2. Kelly says:

    The true beauty of the theory of relativity was that the observer can not be removed yet we continue to separate. Everything starts with one.
    It is the consciousness of the individual and the varying belief systems which create a disconnect within the mind body spirit connection. We have to reset the subconscious mind back to internal well being. Once set can connect to the greater being within and connect out which was the true design of Feynman experimentation with the creative mind in drawing. Beautiful

    • It certainly is all in the mind of the beholder – or as Michelangelo said, you don’t paint with the hands, you paint with the brain. He was much irritated by some local hassles at the time he said it, and refused to do any more painting until he got them sorted out, on the basis that a disturbed mind would only produce poor work. Smart guy!

      • Kelly says:

        I thank you for your beautiful gift. Words that i needed to hear, knowledge I crave and inspiration to do as all masters taught.

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