Why I Hate School But Love Education by Suli Breaks

So you want to get a degree. Why? Let me tell you what society will tell you: It increases your chances of getting a job, provides you with an opportunity to be successful, your life will be a lot less stressful. Education is the key.

Now let me tell you what your parents will tell you: Make me proud. It increases your chances of getting a job, provides you with an opportunity to be successful, your life will be a lot less stressful. Education is the key.

Now let’s look at that statics. Steve Jobs – net worth, 7 billion. RIP. Richard Branson – net worth, 4.2 billion. Oprah Winfrey – net worth, 2.7 billion. Mark Zuckerberg, Henry Ford, Steven Spielberg, Bill Gates, now here comes the coup de grâce. Looking at these individuals, what’s your conclusion? Neither of them, in being successful, ever graduated from a higher learning institution.

Now some of you will protest, like, you know only money is the medium by which one measures worldly success. And some of you will even have the nerve to say, “I don’t do it for the money.” So what are you studying for? To work for a charity? Need more clarity? Let’s look at the statics.

Jesus. Muhammad. Socrates. Malcolm X. Mother Teresa. Spielberg. Shakespeare. Beethoven. Jesse Owens. Muhammad Ali. Sean Carter. Michael Jeffrey Jordan. Michael Joseph Jackson. Were either of these people unsuccessful? Or… uneducated?

All I’m saying is that if there was a family tree, hard work and education would be related; but school would probably be a distant cousin. ‘Cause if education is the key then school is the lock. Because it rarely ever develops your mind to the point where it can perceive red as green and continue to go when someone else says stop.

Because as long as you follow the rules and pass the exams, you’re cool. But are you aware that examiners have a checklist, and if your answer is something outside of the box the automatic response is a cross. And then they claim that school expands your horizons and your visions. Well tell that to Malcolm X who dropped out of school and is world renowned for what he learned in a prison.

Proverbs 17:16. It does a fool no good to spend money on an education. Why? Because he has no common sense. George Bush. Need I say more? Education is about inspiring one’s mind not just filling their head.

And take this from me because I’m an “educated man” myself who only came to this realization after countless nights in the library with a can of red bull keeping me awake ’til dawn and another can in the morn’. Falling asleep in between piles of books which probably equated to the same amount I had spent on my rent.

Memorize equations, facts and dates right down to the letter. Half of which I would never remember, and half of which I would forget straight after the exam and before the start of the next semester. Asking anyone if they had notes for the last lecture.

I often found myself running to class just so I could find a spot on which I could rest my head and fall asleep without making a scene. Ironic, because that’s the only time I ever spent in university chasing my dreams. And then after nights with a dead mind I then find myself in a queue of half-awake student zombies waiting to hand in an assignment. Maybe that’s why they called it a dead-line.

And then after three years of mental suppression and frustration, my “proud mother” didn’t even turn up to my graduation.

Now I’m not saying that school is evil and there’s nothing to gain, all I’m saying is, understand your motives and reassess your aims because if you want a job working for someone else then help yourself. But then that would be a contradiction because you wouldn’t really be helping yourself, you’d be helping somebody else. There’s a saying which says, “If you don’t build your dream, someone else will hire you to help build theirs.”

Redefine how you view education, understand its true meaning. Education is not just about regurgitating facts from a book on someone else’s opinion on a subject to pass an exam. Look at it. Picasso was educated in creating art. Shakespeare was educated in the art of all that was written. Colonel Harland Sanders was educated in the art of creating Kentucky fried chicken.

I once saw David Beckham take a free kick. I watched as the side of his Adidas sponsored boot hit the painted leather of the ball at an angle which caused it to travel towards the skies as though it was destined for the heavens. And then as it reached the peak of its momentum, as though it changed its mind, it switched directions.

I watched as the goal keeper froze, as though reciting to himself the law of physics and as though his brain was negotiating with his eyes that it was indeed witnessing the spectacle of the leather swan that was swooping towards it, and then reacting. But only a fraction of a millisecond too late. And before the net of the goal embraced the FIFA sponsored ball that was the prodigal son returning home, and the country that I live in erupted into cheers, I looked at the play and thought… Damn.

Looking at David Beckham, there’s more than one way to be an educated man.


Why We Should Go Into Space, by Stephen Hawking at the NASA 50th Anniversary Lecture

Why should we go into space? What is the justification for spending all that effort and money on getting a few lumps of moon rock? Aren’t there better causes here on Earth?

In a way the situation is like that in Europe before 1492. People might well have argued that it was a waste of money to send Columbus on a wild goose chase. Yet the discovery of the new world made a profound difference to the old, just think, we wouldn’t have had the Big Mac or KFC.

Spreading out into space will have an even greater effect. It will completely change the future of the human race, and maybe determine whether we have any future at all. It won’t solve any of our immediate problems on planet Earth but it will give us a new perspective on them, and cause us to look outwards rather than inwards. Hopefully it would unite us to face a common challenge.

This would be a long term strategy, and by long term I mean hundreds, or even thousands, of years. We could have a base on the moon within 30 years, reach Mars in 50 years and explore the moons of outer planets in 200 years. By ‘reached,’ I mean with manned, or should I say, personed, space flight. We have driven rovers on Mars and landed a probe on Titan, a moon of Saturn. But if one is considering the future of the human race, we have to go there ourselves.

Going into space won’t be cheap, but it would take only a small proportion of world resources. NASA’s budget has remained roughly constant in real terms since the time of the APOLLO landings, but it has decreased from 0.3% of US GDP in 1970 to 0.12% now. Even if we were to increase the international budget twenty times to make a serious effort to go into space, it would only be a small fraction of world GDP.

There will be those who argue that it would be better to spend our money solving the problems of this planet, like climate change and pollution, rather than wasting it on a possibly fruitless search for a new planet. I am not denying the importance of fighting climate change and global warming, but we can do that and still spare a quarter of a percent of world GDP for space.

Isn’t our future worth a quarter of a percent? We thought space was worth a big effort in the 60’s. In 1962 President Kennedy committed the US to landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade; this was achieved just in time by the APOLLO 11 mission in 1969. The space race helped to create a fascination with science, and lead to great advances in technology including the first large scale integrated circuits – which are the basis of all modern computers.

However, after the last moon landing in 1972, with no future plans for further manned space flight, public interest in space declined. This went along with a general disinterest with science in the West, because although it had brought great benefits, it had not solved the social problems that increasingly occupy public attention.

A new manned space-flight program would do a lot to restore public enthusiasm for space and for science generally. Robotic missions are much cheaper and may provide more scientific information, but they don’t catch the public imagination in the same way. And they don’t spread the human race into space, which I’m arguing should be our long term strategy.

A goal of a base on the moon by 2020, and of a man landing on Mars by 2025 would reignite the space program and give it a sense of purpose in the same way that President Kennedy’s moon target did in the 1960’s. A new interest in space would also increase the public standing of science generally. The low standing in which science and scientists are held is having serious consequences. We live in a society that is increasingly governed by science and technology, yet fewer and fewer young people want to go into science.

What will we find when we go into space? Is there alien life out there, or are we alone in the universe?

We believe that life arose spontaneously on the Earth, so it must be possible for life to appear on other suitable planets – of which there seem to be a large number in the galaxy. But we don’t know how life first appeared. The probability of something as complicated as the DNA molecule being formed by random collisions of atoms in a primeval ocean is incredibly small. However, there might have been some simpler macromolecule which then built up to DNA or some other macromolecule capable of reproducing itself. Still, even if the probability of life appearing on a suitable planet is very small, since the universe is infinite, life would have appeared somewhere. If the probability is very low, the distance between two independent occurrences of life would very large.

However there is a possibility known as panspermia, that life could spread from planet to planet, or from stellar system to stellar system, carried on meteors. We know that Earth has been hit by meteors that came from Mars, and others may have come from a further field. We have no evidence that any meteors carried life, but it remains a possibility. An important feature of life spread by panspermia is that it would have the same basis; which would be DNA for life in the neighborhood of the Earth. On the other hand, an independent occurrence of life would be extremely unlikely to be DNA based. So watch out if you meet an alien, you could be infected with a disease against which you have no resistance.

One piece of observational evidence on the probability of life appearing is that we have fossils of allege from 3.5 billion years ago. The Earth was formed 4.6 billion years ago, and was probably too hot for about the first half-billion years. So life appeared on Earth within half a billion years of it being possible, which is short compared to the 10 billion year lifetime of an Earth-like planet. This would suggest either panspermia, or that the probability of life appearing independently is reasonably high. If it was very low, one would have expected it to take most of the 10 billion years available. If it is panspermia, any life in the solar system, or in nearby stellar systems, will also be DNA based.

While there may be primitive life in our region of the galaxy, there don’t seem to be any advanced intelligent beings. We don’t appear to have been visited by aliens. I am discounting reports of UFO’s – why would they appear only to cranks and weirdoes? If there is a government conspiracy to suppress the reports, and keep for itself the scientific knowledge the aliens bring, it seems to have a singularly effective policy so far. Furthermore, despite an extensive search by the SETI project, we haven’t heard any alien television shows. This probably indicates that there are no alien civilizations at our stage of development within a radius of a few hundred light years. Issuing an insurance policy against abduction by aliens seems a pretty safe bet.

Why haven’t we heard from anyone out there? One view is expressed in this Calvin cartoon:


The caption reads, ‘Sometimes I think the surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us.’ More seriously, there could be three possible explanations of why we haven’t heard from aliens. First, it may be that the probability of primitive life appearing on a suitable planet is very low. Second, the probability of primitive life appearing may be reasonably high, but the probability of that life developing intelligence like ours, may be very low. Just because evolution led to intelligence in our case, we shouldn’t assume that intelligence is an inevitable consequence of Darwinian Natural Selection. It is not clear that intelligence confirms a long term survival advantage. Bacteria and insects will survive quite happily even if our so called intelligence leads us to destroy ourselves.

This is the third possibility; life appears and in some cases develops into intelligent beings, but when it reaches the stage of sending radio signals, it will also have the technology to make nuclear bombs and other weapons of mass destruction. It would therefore be in danger of destroying itself before long. Let’s hope this is not the reason we have not heard from anyone. Personally I favor the second possibility, that primitive life is relatively common, but that intelligent life is very rare. Some would say it has yet to occur on Earth.

Can we exist for a long time away from the Earth? Our experience with the ISS, the International Space Station, shows that it is possible for human beings to survive for many months away from planet Earth. However, the zero gravity of orbit causes a number of undesirable physiological changes, and weakening of the bones, as well as creating practical problems with liquids, etc.

One would therefore want any long term base for human beings to be on a planet or moon. By digging into the surface, one would get thermal insulation and protection from meteors and cosmic rays. The planet or moon could also serve as a source of the raw materials that would be needed if the extraterrestrial community was to be self-sustaining, independently of Earth.

What are the possible sites of a human colony in the solar system? The most obvious is the moon. It is close by, and relatively easy to reach. We have already landed on it, and driven across it in a buggy. On the other hand, the moon is small and without atmosphere, or a magnetic field to deflect the solar radiation particles, like on Earth. There is no liquid water, but there may be ice in the craters at the North and South poles. A colony on the moon could use this as a source of oxygen, with power provided by nuclear energy or solar panels. The moon could be a base for travel to the rest of the solar system.

Mars is the obvious next target. It is half a far again as the Earth from the Sun, and so receives half the warmth. It once had a magnetic field, but it decayed four billion years ago, leaving Mars without protection from solar radiation. This stripped Mars of most of its atmosphere, leaving it with only one percent of the pressure of the Earth’s atmosphere. However, the pressure must have been higher in the past, because we see what would appear to be run off channels, and dried up lakes. Liquid water cannot exist on Mars now; it would vaporize in the near vacuum. This suggests that Mars had a warm, wet period during which life might have appeared, either spontaneously or through panspermia.

There is no sign of life on Mars now, but if we found evidence that life had once existed it would indicate that the probability of life developing on a suitable planet was fairly high. NASA has sent a large number of space craft to Mars, starting with Mariner 4 in 1964. It has surveyed the planet with a number of orbiters, the latest being the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. These orbiters have revealed deep gullies, and the highest mountains in the solar system. NASA has also landed a number of probes on the surface of Mars, most recently, the two Mars rovers. These have sent back pictures of a dry desert landscape. However there is a large quantity of water in the form of ice in the Polar Regions. A colony on Mars could use this as a source of oxygen. There has been volcanic activity on Mars; this would have brought minerals and metals to the surface, which a colony could use.

The moon and Mars are the most suitable sites for space colonies in the solar system. Mercury and Venus are too hot, while Jupiter and Saturn are gas giants with no solid surface. The moons of Mars are very small, and have no advantages over Mars itself. Some of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn might be possible. In particular, Titan, a moon of Saturn, is larger and more massive than our moon, and has a dense atmosphere. The Cassini Huygens mission of NASA and ESA has landed a probe on Titan which has sent back pictures of the surface. However it is very cold being so far from the sun and I wouldn’t fancy living next to a lake of liquid methane.

What about beyond the solar system? Our observations indicate that a significant fraction of stars have planets around them. So far we can detect only giant planets, like Jupiter and Saturn, but it is reasonable to assume that they will be accompanied by smaller, Earth like planets. Some of these will lie in the goldilocks zone, where the distance from the star is in the right range for liquid water to exist on their surface. There are around a thousand stars within thirty light years of Earth. If one percent of these have Earth sized planets in the goldilocks zone; we have ten candidate new worlds.

We can’t envision visiting them with current technology, but we should make interstellar travel a long term aim. By long term, I mean over the next 200 to 500 years. The human race has existed as a separate species for about two million years; civilization began about ten thousand years ago and the rate of development has been steadily increasing. If the human race is to continue for another million years, we will have to boldly go where no one has gone before.


Audacious Visions by Neil DeGrasse Tyson


When I think of our golden era of space exploration, that was a decade that was perhaps almost turbulent in a century; we all felt threatened from the Cold War. There was a hot war going on losing one hundred service men a week, the civil rights movement assassinations and like. The landscape was poisoned that decade yet, one of the jewels in the American crown was our exploration of space.

Audacious visions have the power to alter mind states. To change assumptions about what is possible and when a nation allows itself to dream big these dreams prevail in the citizens’ ambitions.

During the Apollo era you didn’t need government programs trying to convince people that doing science and engineering was good for the country, it was self-evident. Fully funded missions to Mars and anywhere beyond low-Earth orbit would reboot America’s capacity to innovate as no other force in society can.

We’ve got symptoms in society today. We’re going broke, we’re mired in debt, we don’t have as many scientists as we need and jobs are going overseas. I assert that these are not isolated problems, that they’re the collective consequence of the absence of ambition that consumes you when you stop having dreams.

Epic space adventures plant seeds of economic growth because doing what has never been done before is intellectually seductive whether or not we deem it practical. And when you conduct those exercises, innovation follows just as day follows night. And when you innovate you lead the world, you keep your jobs and concerns over tariffs and trade regulations evaporate. The call for this adventure would echo loudly across society and down the educational pipeline.

The spending portfolio of the United States currently allocates fifty times as much money to social programs and education than it does NASA. The half a penny budget that NASA receives, if  you double it, I assert that we can transform the country from a solemn, dispirited nation, weary of economic struggle, to one where it has reclaimed its twentieth century birth right to dream of tomorrow.

How much would you pay to launch our economy?

How much would you pay for the universe?


The Problem With ‘Why’ by Richard Feynman

Interviewer: If you get hold of two magnets, and you push them, you can feel this pushing between them. Turn them around the other way, and they slam together. Now, what is it, the feeling between those two magnets?

Feynman: What do you mean, “What’s the feeling between the two magnets?”–

Interviewer: There’s something there, isn’t there? The sensation is that there’s something there when you push these two magnets together.

Feynman: Listen to my question. What is the meaning when you say that there’s a feeling? Of course you feel it. Now what do you want to know?

Interviewer: What I want to know is what’s going on between these two bits of metal?

Feynman: The magnets repel each other.

Interviewer: What does that mean, or why are they doing that, or how are they doing that? I think that’s a perfectly reasonable question.

Feynman: Of course, it’s an excellent question. But the problem, you see, when you ask why something happens, how does a person answer why something happens? For example, Aunt Minnie is in the hospital. Why? Because she went out, slipped on the ice, and broke her hip. That satisfies people. It satisfies, but it wouldn’t satisfy someone who came from another planet and who knew nothing about why when you break your hip do you go to the hospital. How do you get to the hospital when the hip is broken? Well, because her husband, seeing that her hip was broken, called the hospital up and sent somebody to get her. All of that is understood by people. And when you explain a why, you have to be in some framework that you allow something to be true. Otherwise, you’re perpetually asking why. Why did the husband call up the hospital? Because husband is interested in his wife’s welfare. Not always, some husbands aren’t interested in their wives’ welfare when they’re drunk, and they’re angry.

And so you begin to get a very interesting understanding of the world and all its complications. If you try to follow anything up, you go deeper and deeper in various directions. For example, if you go, “Why did she slip on the ice?” Well, ice is slippery. Everybody knows that, no problem. But you ask why is ice slippery? That’s kind of curious. Ice is extremely slippery. It’s very interesting. You say, “How does it work?” You could either say, “I’m satisfied that you’ve answered me. Ice is slippery; that explains it,” or you could go on and say, “Why is ice slippery?” and then you’re involved with something, because there aren’t many things as slippery as ice. It’s very hard to get greasy stuff, but that’s sort of wet and slimy. But a solid that’s so slippery? Because it is, in the case of ice, when you stand on it (they say) momentarily the pressure melts the ice a little bit so you get a sort of instantaneous water surface on which you’re slipping. Why on ice and not on other things? Because water expands when it freezes, so the pressure tries to undo the expansion and melts it. It’s capable of melting, but other substances get cracked when they’re freezing, and when you push them they’re satisfied to be solid.

Why does water expand when it freezes and other substances don’t? I’m not answering your question, but I’m telling you how difficult the why question is. You have to know what it is that you’re permitted to understand and allow to be understood and known, and what it is you’re not. You’ll notice, in this example, that the more I ask why, it gets interesting after a while; that’s my idea, that the deeper a thing is the more interesting it is. We could even go further and say, “Why did she fall down when she slipped?” That has to do with gravity, involves all the planets and everything else. Never mind! It goes on and on. And when you’re asked, for example, why two magnets repel, there are many different levels. It depends on whether you’re a student of physics, or an ordinary person who doesn’t know anything. If you’re somebody who doesn’t know anything at all about it, all I can say is the magnetic force makes them repel, and that you’re feeling that force.

You say, “That’s very strange, because I don’t feel kind of force like that in other circumstances.” When you turn them the other way, they attract. There’s a very analogous force, electrical force, which is the same kind of a question, and you say “That’s also very weird.” But you’re not at all disturbed by the fact that when you put your hand on a chair, it pushes you back. But we found out by looking at it that that’s the same force, as a matter of fact (an electrical force, not magnetic exactly, in that case). But it’s the same electric repulsions that are involved in keeping your finger away from the chair because it’s electrical forces in minor and microscopic details. There’s other forces involved, connected to electrical forces. It turns out that the magnetic and electrical force with which I wish to explain this repulsion in the first place is what ultimately is the deeper thing that we have to start with to explain many other things that everybody would just accept. You know you can’t put your hand through the chair; that’s taken for granted. But that you can’t put your hand through the chair, when looked at more closely, why, involves the same repulsive forces that appear in magnets. The situation you then have to explain is why in magnets it goes over a bigger distance than ordinarily. There it has to do with the fact that in iron all the electrons are spinning in the same direction, they all get lined up, and they magnify the effect of the force ’til its large enough, at a distance, that you can feel it. But it’s a force which is present all the time and very common and is a basic force of almost – I mean, I could go a little further back if I went more technical – but on an early level I’ve just got to tell you that’s going to be one of the things you’ll just have to take as an element of the world: the existence of magnetic repulsion, or electrical attraction, magnetic attraction.

I can’t explain that attraction in terms of anything else that’s familiar to you. For example, if we said the magnets attract like if they were connected by rubber bands, I would be cheating you. Because they’re not connected by rubber bands. I’d soon be in trouble. And secondly, if you were curious enough, you’d ask me why rubber bands tend to pull back together again, and I would end up explaining that in terms of electrical forces, which are the very things that I’m trying to use the rubber bands to explain. So I have cheated very badly, you see. So I am not going to be able to give you an answer to why magnets attract each other except to tell you that they do. And to tell you that that’s one of the elements in the world – there are electrical forces, magnetic forces, gravitational forces, and others, and those are some of the parts. If you were a student, I could go further. I could tell you that the magnetic forces are related to the electrical forces very intimately, that the relationship between the gravity forces and electrical forces remains unknown, and so on. But I really can’t do a good job, any job, of explaining magnetic force in terms of something else you’re more familiar with, because I don’t understand it in terms of anything else that you’re more familiar with.



Queerer than we can suppose: A TED Talk given by Professor Richard Dawkins

My title, Queerer than we can suppose: the strangeness of science, “queerer than we can suppose” comes from J.B.S. Haldane, a famous biologist who said, “Now my own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose but queerer than we can suppose. I suspect there are more things in heaven and Earth that have been dreamed of, or can be dreamed of, in any philosophy.”

Richard Feynman compared the accuracy of quantum theory’s experimental predictions, to specifying the width of North America to within one hair’s breadth of accuracy. This means that quantum theory has got to be in some sense true, yet the assumptions that quantum theory needs to make in order to deliver those predictions are so mysterious that even Feynman himself was moved to remark, “If  you think you understand quantum theory, you don’t understand quantum theory.” It’s so queer that physicists resort to one or another paradoxical interpretation of it.

David Duetsch, whose talking here, in the fabric of reality embraces the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum theory because the worst you can say about it is that it’s preposterously wasteful. It postulates a vast and rapidly growing number of universes existing in parallel, mutually undetectable, except through the narrow porthole of quantum mechanical experiments.

The biologist Lewis Wolpert believes that the queerness of modern physics is just an extreme example; science as opposed to technology does violence to common sense. “Every time you drink a glass of water,” he points out, “the odds are that you will imbibe at least one molecule that passed through the bladder of Oliver Cromwell.” It’s just elementary probability theory; the number of molecules per glassful is hugely greater than the number of glassfuls, or bladders full, in the world. And of course there is nothing special about Cromwell or bladders; you have just breathed in a nitrogen atom that passed through the right lung of the third iguanodon to the left of the tall cycad tree.

Queerer than we can suppose. What is it that makes us capable of supposing anything, and does this tell us anything about what we can suppose? Are there things about the universe that will be forever beyond our grasp, but not beyond the grasp of some superior intelligence? Are there things about the universe that are in principle ungraspable by any mind however superior?

The history of science has been one long series of violent brainstorms as successive generations have come to terms with increasing levels of queerness in the universe. We are now so used to the idea that the Earth spins rather than the sun moves across the sky it is hard for us to realize what a shattering mental revolution that must have been. After all it seems obvious that the Earth is large and motionless, the sun small and mobile, but it is worth recalling Wittgenstein’s remark on the subject. “Tell me,” he asked a friend, “why do people always say it was natural for man to assume that the sun went round the Earth rather than that the Earth was rotating?” His friend replied, “Well obviously it just looks as though the sun is going round the Earth.” And Wittgenstein replied, “Well what would it have looked like if it had looked as though the Earth was rotating?”

Science has taught us, against all intuition, that apparently solid things like crystals and rocks are really almost entirely composed of empty space. The familiar illustration is the nucleus of an atom is a fly in the middle of a sports stadium and the next atom is in the next sports stadium. So it would seem the hardest, solidest, densest rock is really almost entirely empty space. Broken only by tiny particles so widely spaced they shouldn’t count. Why then do rocks look and feel solid and hard, and feel impenetrable?

As an evolutionary biologist I’d say this, our brains have evolved to help us survive within the orders of magnitude of size and speed which our bodies operate at. We never evolved to navigate in the world of atoms, if we had, our brains probably would perceive rocks as full of empty space. Rocks feel hard and impenetrable to our hands precisely because objects like rocks and hands cannot penetrate each other. It is therefore useful for our brains to construct notions like solidity and impenetrability because such notions help us to navigate our bodies through the middle sized world in which we have to navigate. Moving to the other end of the scale, our ancestors never had to navigate through the cosmos at speeds close to the speed of light. If they had, our brains would be much better at understanding Einstein.

I want to give the name “Middle World” to the medium scaled environment in which we’ve evolved the ability to take action, nothing to do with Middle Earth, Middle World. We are evolved denizens’ of middle world and that limits what we are capable of imagining. We find it intuitively easy to grasp ideas like, when a rabbit moves at a sort of medium velocity at which rabbits and other middle world objects move, and hits another middle world object like a rock, it knocks itself out.

May I introduce Major General, Albert Stubblebine III, commander of military intelligence in 1983. He stared at his wall in Arlington, Virginia and decided to do it. As frightening as the prospect was, he was going into the next office. He stood up and moved out from behind his desk. “What is the atom mostly made of?” he thought, “Space,” he started walking, “what am I mostly made of? Atoms.” He quickened his pace almost to a jog now, “What is the wall mostly made of? Atoms! All I have to do is merge the spaces.” Then General Stubblebine banged his nose hard on the wall of his office. Stubblebine, who commanded sixteen thousand soldiers, was confounded by his continued failure to walk through the wall. He has no doubt that this tool will one day be a common tool in the military arsenal, who would screw around with an army that could do that?

Unaided human intuition schooled in middle world finds it hard to believe Galileo when he tells us a heavy object and a light object, air friction aside, would hit the ground at the same instant. And that’s because in middle world air friction is always there, if we evolved in a vacuum we’d expect them to hit the ground simultaneously. If we were bacteria, constantly buffeted by thermal movements of molecules, it would be different, but we middle worlders are too big to notice brawny in motion. In the same way our lives are dominated by gravity but are almost oblivious to the force of surface tension, a small insect would reverse these priorities.

Steve Grand in his book, Creation, Life and How to Make It, is positively scathing with our preoccupation with matter itself. We have this tendency to think that only solid, material things are really things at all. Waves of electromagnetic fluctuation in a vacuum seem unreal. And Victorians thought the waves had to be waves in some material medium, the ether. But we find real matter comforting only because we’ve evolved to survive in middle world where matter is a useful fiction. A whirlpool for Steve Grand is a thing with just as much reality as a rock.

In a desert plane in Tanzania, in the shadow of the volcano Ol Doinyo Legngai, there is a dune made of volcanic ash. The beautiful thing is that it moves bodily, it’s what’s technically known as a barchans, and the entire dune walks across the desert in a westerly direction at a speed of about seventeen meters per year. It retains its crescent shape and moves in the directions of the horns. What happens is that the wind blows the sand up the shallow slope on the other side, and as each sand grain hits the top of the ridge it cascades down on the inside of the crescent. And so the whole horn shaped dune moves.

Steve Grand points out that you and I are ourselves more ourselves like a wave than a permanent thing. He invites us, the reader, to think of an experience from your childhood, something you remember clearly. Something you can see, feel, maybe even smell, as if you were really there. After all you really were there at the time weren’t you, how else would you remember it? But here is the bombshell, you weren’t there. Not a single atom that is in your body today was there when that event took place. Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be “you.” Whatever you are therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made. If that doesn’t make the hair on the back of your neck stand up read it again until it does, because it is important.

So “really” isn’t a word we should use with simple confidence. If a neutrino had a brain which it evolved in neutrino sized ancestors, it would say that rocks really do consist of empty space. We have brains that evolved in medium sized ancestors which couldn’t walk through rocks. “Really,” for an animal is whatever it’s brain need it to be in order to assist its survival. And because different species live in different worlds, there will be a discomforting variety of different “reallys”.

What we see of the real world is not an unvarnished world but a model of the world regulated and adjusted by sense data but constructed so it’s useful for dealing with the real world. The nature of the model depends on the kind of animal we are, a flying animal needs a different kind of model from a walking, climbing or swimming animal. A monkey’s brain must have software capable of simulating a three dimensional world of branches and trunks, a mole’s software for constructing models of its world will be customized for underground use. A water-strider’s brain doesn’t need three-D software at all because it lives on the surface of the pond in an Edwin Abbott flatland.

I’ve speculated that bats may see color with their ears, the world model that a bat needs in order to navigate through three dimensions catching insects must be pretty similar to any flying bird, a day flying bird, like a swallow needs to perform the same kind of tasks. The fact that the bat uses echoes in pitch darkness to input the current variables to its model, while the swallow uses light, is incidental. Bats, I’ve even suggested, use perceived hues such as red and blue as internal labels for some useful aspect of echoes, perhaps the acoustic texture of surfaces, furry or smooth and so on, in the same way the swallows, or indeed we, use those perceived hues, redness and blueness etc. to label long and short wavelengths of light. There is nothing inherent about red that makes it long wavelength. The point is that the nature of the model is governed by how it is to be used rather than by the sensory modality involved.

J.B.S. Haldane himself had something to say himself about animals whose world is dominated by smell. Dogs can distinguish two very similar fatty acids; extremely diluted caprylic acid and caproic acid; the only difference you see is that one has an extra pair of carbon atoms in the chain. Haldane guesses that a dog would probably be able to place the acids in the order of their molecular weights by their smells just as a man could place a number of piano wires in the order of their lengths by means of their notes. Now there is another fatty acid, capric acid, which is just like the other two except it has two more carbon atoms. A dog that had never met capric acid would perhaps have no more trouble imagining its smell than we would have trouble imagining a trumpet say, playing one note higher than we had heard a trumpet play before. Perhaps dogs and rhinos and other smell oriented animals smell in color, and the argument would be exactly the same as for the bats.

Middle world, the range of sizes and speeds which we have evolved to feel intuitively comfortable with is a bit like the narrow range of the electromagnetic spectrum that we see as light or various colors; we’re blind to all frequencies outside that unless we use instruments to help us. Middle world is the narrow range of reality which we judge to be normal as opposed to the queerness of the very small, the very large, and the very fast.

We could make a similar scale of improbabilities, nothing is totally impossible; miracles are just events that are extremely improbable. A marble statue could wave its hand at us; the atoms that make up its crystalline structure are all vibrating back and forth anyway. Because there are so many of them, and because there is no agreement among them in their preferred direction of movement, the marble as we see it in middle world stays rock steady. But the atoms in the hand could all just happen to move in the same way at the same time, and again and again and in this case the hand would move and we’d see it waving at us in middle world. The odds against it of course are so great that if you set out writing zeros at the time of the origin of the universe, you still would not have written enough zeros to this day.

Evolution in middle world has not equipped us to handle very improbable events, we don’t live long enough. In the vastness of astronomical space and geological time, that which seems impossible in middle world might turn out to be inevitable. One way to think about that is by counting planets; we don’t know how many planets there are in the universe but a good estimate is ten to the twenty, or a hundred billion billion. And that gives us a nice way to express our estimate of life’s improbability. We could make some sort of landmark points along a spectrum of improbability which might look like the electromagnetic spectrum we just looked at.

Life could originate once per planet, it could be extremely common, or it could originate once per star, or once per galaxy, or maybe only once in the entire universe; in which case it would have to be here. And somewhere up there would be the chance that a frog would turn into a prince and similar magical things like that. If life has arisen on only one planet in the entire universe, that planet has to be our planet because here we are talking about it. And that means that if we want to avail ourselves of it, we are allowed to postulate chemical events in the origin of life which have a probability as low as one in a hundred billion billion. I don’t think that we shall have to avail ourselves of that, because I suspect that life is quite common in the universe. And when I say quite common it could still be so rare that no one island of life ever encounters another which is a sad thought.

How shall we interpret “queerer than we can suppose?” Queerer than can in principle be supposed or just queerer than we can suppose, given the limitations of our brain’s evolutionary apprenticeship in middle world? Could we by practice, emancipate ourselves from middle world and achieve some sort of intuitive, as well as mathematical, understanding of the very small and the very large? I genuinely don’t know the answer, I wonder if we might help ourselves to understand say, quantum theory if we brought up children to play computer games beginning in early childhood which had a sort of make believe world of balls going through two slits on a screen; a world in which the strange goings on of quantum mechanics were enlarged by the computer’s make believe so that they became familiar on the middle world scale of the screen. And similarly, a relativistic computer game in which objects on the screen manifest the Lawrence contraction and so on to try and get ourselves, get children, in the way of thinking about it.

I want to end by applying the idea of middle world to our perceptions of each other. Most scientists today subscribe to a mechanistic view of the mind where the way we are because our brains are wired up the way they are, our hormones of the way they are. We’d be different; our characters would be different if our neuro-anatomy, our physiological chemistry were different. But we scientists are inconsistent, if we were consistent in our response to a misbehaving person like a child murderer should be something like, “This unit has a faulty component it needs repairing.” But that’s not what we say and what we say, and I include the most austerely mechanistic among us which is probably me, what we say is, “vile monster, prison is too good for you,” or worse we seek revenge, in all probability there by triggering the next phase in an escalating cycle of counter revenge which we see of course all over the world today.

In short, when we’re thinking like academics we regard people as elaborate and complicated machines like computers or cars. But when we revert to being human we behave more like Basil Fawlty, we remember, thrashed his car to teach it a lesson when it wouldn’t start on gourmet night. The reason we personify things like cars and computers is that, just as monkeys live an arboreal world and moles live in an underground world and water striders live in a surface tension dominated flat land; we live in a social world. We swim through a sea of people, a social version of middle world. We are evolved to second guess the behavior of others by becoming brilliant, intuitive psychologists. Treating people as machines may be scientifically and philosophically accurate but it’s a cumbersome waste of time if you want to guess what this person is going to do next. The economically useful way to model a person is to treat him as a purposeful, goal seeking agent with pleasures and pains, desires and tensions, guilt, and blameworthiness. Personification and the imputing of intentional purpose is such a brilliantly successful way to model humans, it’s hardly surprising the same modeling software often seizes control of when we’re  trying to think of entities for which it’s not appropriate, like Basil Fawlty with his car, or like millions of diluted people with the universe as a whole.

If the universe is queerer than we can suppose, is it because we have been naturally selected to suppose only what we need to suppose in order to survive in the plasticity of Africa? Or, are our brains so versatile and expandable that we can train ourselves to break out of the box of our evolution? Or finally, are there some things in the universe so queer that no philosophy of beings, however god like, could dream them?

dawkins ted