The Origins of Space and Time


Zeeya Merali in Nature News:

“Imagine waking up one day and realizing that you actually live inside a computer game,” says Mark Van Raamsdonk, describing what sounds like a pitch for a science-fiction film. But for Van Raamsdonk, a physicist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, this scenario is a way to think about reality. If it is true, he says, “everything around us — the whole three-dimensional physical world — is an illusion born from information encoded elsewhere, on a two-dimensional chip”. That would make our Universe, with its three spatial dimensions, a kind of hologram, projected from a substrate that exists only in lower dimensions.

This 'holographic principle' is strange even by the usual standards of theoretical physics. But Van Raamsdonk is one of a small band of researchers who think that the usual ideas are not yet strange enough. If nothing else, they say, neither of the two great pillars of modern physics — general relativity, which describes gravity as a curvature of space and time, and quantum mechanics, which governs the atomic realm — gives any account for the existence of space and time. Neither does string theory, which describes elementary threads of energy.

Van Raamsdonk and his colleagues are convinced that physics will not be complete until it can explain how space and time emerge from something more fundamental — a project that will require concepts at least as audacious as holography. They argue that such a radical reconceptualization of reality is the only way to explain what happens when the infinitely dense 'singularity' at the core of a black hole distorts the fabric of space-time beyond all recognition, or how researchers can unify atomic-level quantum theory and planet-level general relativity — a project that has resisted theorists' efforts for generations.

8 Reasons Not to Go to War in Syria


Peter Suderman in Reason's Hit and Run blog:

1. If the rebels win, it’s bad news for the U.S. Assad is no friend to the U.S. But neither are the rebel groups leading the charge against the Syrian dictator. Indeed, many of the rebel factions have strong ties to Al-Qeada. If the rebels successfully oust Assad, it’s entirely possible that they will attempt to set up a new regime that is intensely hostile to the United States. Intervention on the side of the rebels would also complicate America's already-fraught relationship with Russia, which is close with the Assad regime.

2. If Assad wins, it’s bad news for the U.S. Especially if the U.S. is seen to have openly sided with the rebels. A win for Assad is a win for anti-American forces Iran, which would see its influence in the region strengthened. It’s also a win for Hezbollah, which is closely linked with Iranian extremists. With no good option, then, the U.S. is better off staying out of the conflict entirely.

3. It’s far from certain that any “limited” actions would actually be effective. Most of the talk right now revolves around the possibility of limited cruise missile strikes and/or no-fly zone enforcement. But as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey told NPR last month, the possible results of enforcing a no-fly zone could “include the loss of U.S. aircraft, which would require us to insert personnel recovery forces. It may also fail to reduce the violence or shift the momentum because the regime relies overwhelmingly on surface fires — mortars, artillery, and missiles.”

Why India’s Economy Is Stumbling


Arvind Subramanian in the NYT:

Structural problems were inherent in India’s unusual model of economic development, which relied on a limited pool of skilled labor rather than an abundant supply of cheap, unskilled, semiliterate labor. This meant that India specialized in call centers, writing software for European companies and providing back-office services for American health insurers and law firms and the like, rather than in a manufacturing model. Other economies that have developed successfully — Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea and China — relied in their early years on manufacturing, which provided more jobs for the poor.

Two decades of double-digit growth in pay for skilled labor have caused wages to rise and have chipped away at India’s competitive advantage. Countries like the Philippines have emerged as attractive alternatives for outsourcing. India’s higher-education system is not generating enough talent to meet the demand for higher skills. Worst of all, India is failing to make full use of the estimated one million low-skilled workers who enter the job market every month.

More from Simon Johnson in the NYT's Economix here.

The Mark of a Great Poet


Paul Muldoon on Seamus Heaney in The Daily Beast:

If, as Eliot suggested, the mark of a great poet is that she or he will develop the milieu in which her or his work is seen to matter, then Heaney certainly had an educator’s gift for drawing out his readers and transporting them to places where they simply wouldn’t have expected to be. The truth is that he developed into a much more complex poet than anyone might have imagined, one who was increasingly recognized as having insights into not only plows, horses, and frogs, but international politics, human rights, and the attack on the World Trade Center. He was the only poet I can think of who was recognized worldwide as having moral as well as literary authority and, as such, may be the last major poet to even entertain such a possibility.

Requiem for Seamus Heaney

Sameer Rahim in The Telegraph:

Heaney21_2657363bIn January, I heard Seamus Heaney reading at the Tricycle Theatre in north London. At the time it felt like a special event – and with the news that the Nobel Prize-winning poet has died aged 74, I feel even more privileged to have been there. He read from his poem “Two Lorries” – “one of the least romantic titles for a poem ever”, he drily noted – which opens with a memory of his mother having coal delivered: “It’s raining on black coal and warm wet ashes.” The last two words echoed a passage from Joyce’s Ulysses he had read out earlier, in which Stephen Dedalus’s dead mother appears in a dream smelling of “wetted ashes”. Heaney's echo was surely deliberate. It felt like he was allowing us a private glimpse of his creative method.

…Works of art often sparked his imagination. There were fine translations of Dante and Sophocles and an acclaimed version of Beowulf. European literature was in his bones. In an essay on three English poets – his close friend Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin and Geoffrey Hill – he wrote of the “cultural depth-charges latent in certain words and rhythms, the binding secret between words in poetry that delights not just the ear but the whole backward and abysm of mind and body”. The phrase “backward and abysm” recalls The Tempest: Prospero’s question to his daughter Miranda about her early years. Heaney was in deep touch with his childhood memories out of which he made beautiful poetry. But he also plunged into dark corners of the human heart and the well of ancient literature. He felt like a wise sage as well as a great poet. Though I can hear him gently recoiling from such praise: “The gift of writing is to be self-forgetful,” he told me, ”to get a surge of inner life or inner supply or unexpected sense of empowerment, to be afloat, to be out of yourself.”

More here.

There will never be another you: Images of Jazz Greats

From The New York Times:

BillieholidayAn almost startling intimacy characterized the smoky jazz clubs in places like Chicago and Cleveland around 1950. Billie Holiday relaxed on a banquette; Ella Fitzgerald sang on small stages, mere feet from the audience. “This was the way this music was supposed to be presented,” says Joe Lauro, the president of the Historic Films Archive in Greenport, N.Y. “They weren’t filling up Madison Square Garden.” Lauro acquired a trove of pictures from this time taken by Nat Singerman, a photographer and jazz lover, that captures some of the era’s jazz greats in color, rare for the subject matter then. “It’s fascinating to see them at this particular moment,” says Loren Schoenberg, the artistic director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, of these previously unpublished pictures. “This was just before rhythm and blues and rock ’n’ roll took the spotlight away from these people.”

More here.

Robert Pinsky and Others on Seamus Heaney

From the Boston Review:

ScreenHunter_292 Aug. 31 12.52Robert Pinsky

Seamus Heaney, as I’ve often said, was a mensch as well as a great poet.
 When he sent me a poem for the first issue of Slate (his wonderful “Little Canticles of Asturias”), I don't think he had any notion what an “internet magazine” might be. He gave me the poem because I asked him for one, and we were friends.
 Readers of Boston Review should know that his attachment to this place was deep. I think Boston and Cambridge supplied, a little, some haven from the central, sometimes fierce spotlight, for him, of being in Dublin or London. Here, there was a little refuge in being an outsider, as well as in the glare. He handled it all with class and generosity.
 When reading lives of writers, many great writers often behaving in ways that were petty or worse, I've thought to myself, “Thank god for Chekhov—a great writer who was also a decent, generous, good person.”

Well, thank god for Seamus.

More here. And here's the NYT obituary by Margalit Fox.

Huw Price reviews Lee Smolin’s Time Reborn

Huw Price in Medium of Expression:

SmolinLee Smolin likes big targets. His last book, The Trouble With Physics, took on the string theorists who dominate so much of contemporary theoretical physics. It was my engrossing in-flight reading on a trip to the Perimeter Institute a few years ago, where I first met its rather engaging author in person. I thoroughly enjoyed that battle, from my distant philosophical vantage point – “Pleasant is it to behold great encounters of warfare arrayed over the plains, with no part of yours in the peril,” as Lucretius put it (1). But now things are more serious: in Time Reborn Smolin has my team in his sights, and some part of mine is certainly in the peril, if he emerges victorious. Should I now be feeling sorry for the string theorists?

I’ll come back to that question, but first to the dispute itself, which is one of philosophy’s oldest feuds. One team thinks of time as we seem to experience it, a locus of flow and change, centered on the present moment – “All is flux”, as Heraclitus put it, around 500BC. The other team, my clan, are loyal instead to Heraclitus’s near contemporary, Parmenides of Elea. We think of time as it is described in history: simply a series or “block” of events, lined up in a particular order, with no distinguished present moment. For us, “now” is like “here” – it marks where we ourselves happen to stand, but has no significance at all, from the universe’s point of view.

Which side is right? Both teams have supporters in contemporary philosophy, but we Parmenideans claim powerful allies in modern physics, commonly held by physicists themselves to favour the block picture. Einstein is often quoted as one of our champions.

More here.

The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths

Richard King in the Sydney Review of Books:

1370120542And if we are reasoning animals, why can we not apply our reason to the question of how to improve our lot and the lot of our species more generally? ‘Scientific inquiry may be an embodiment of reason,’ writes Gray in a revealing passage, ‘but what such inquiry demonstrates is that humans are not rational animals.’ Well, they’re rational enough to have science! And so the question becomes not whether we are rational, but to what extent we are rational and whether we can use our rationality to create institutions and political systems that favour and nurture that rationality and keep our irrational drives in check.

To say that The Silence of Animals doesn’t begin to answer that question would be to put it delicately. For Gray gives us an image of humankind as fundamentally and dangerously irrational. He gives us Man the Myth-maker. Turning to Freud, who in Gray’s estimation has been fundamentally misunderstood as providing ‘a therapy for modern ills’, Gray suggests that ‘the upshot of his work is that we are obliged to admit that our knowledge of ourselves cannot be other than highly limited.’ And so we tell stories about the world, and about our special place within it, and about how we are going to make it better; and in this way we avoid the truth that we are animals and that our lives are without meaning.

More here.

Saturday Poet

Rest in peace, Seamus

“Debate doesn’t really change things. It gets you bogged in deeper. If you can address or reopen the subject with something new, something from a different angle, then there is some hope…. That’s something poetry can do for you, it can entrance you for a moment above the pool of your own consciousness and your own possibilities.”

—Seamus Heaney

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

—from Heaney's Digging

hitler’s town


This is the very question that Linz asks. We are not the past, Linz says, we are the present and the future. On the edge of town is solarCity, a model of alternative power use, and in the center, the tramcars (the latest from Siemens) glide by the same fashionable stores you can find in Avignon and Minneapolis. The bunker under the Hauptplatz has been converted to a parking garage, and the smog that once darkened Linz’s skies has been eliminated—the emissions from its steelworks filtered until the smoke seems as inoffensive as the new name, Voestalpine (so much less toxic than the original one, the Hermann Göring Steel Works). Linz got a boost recently when the European Union chose it as a cultural capital (an honor bestowed annually on a European city, which is expected, in return, to stage cultural events, promote art, and generally spruce itself up), although in the case of Linz, the honor came with a catch. In 1945 the Allies designated Austria as “Hitler’s first victim,” but Europeans whose families suffered under the Nazis in Austria (including Linz and its environs) understood this as self-serving revisionism. The EU urged Linz—as it set about preparing for a year in the limelight—to recover its memory.

more from Robert Hahn at The American Scholar here.

Life, with Marilyn Horne


That narrative is a juicy one. As with most nineteenth-century operas, it is about forbidden love, but one that is as inevitable as destiny. The duet in Act II between Aïda and Amneris explores how the dynamics of power try to subvert the natural paths of love. Princess Amneris (sung by Marilyn Horne) is determined to find out if her slave Aïda (sung by Leontyne Price) loves the country’s warrior-hero Radamès, and all manner of overwrought cattiness ensues. Amneris lies that Radamès is dead. Aïda despairs and then explodes with relief when she learns the truth. Amneris vows retribution; Aïda begs for mercy. Even if you know nothing of opera, the turns, revelations, and emotions of this scenario call out for some kind of accompaniment: slow, lyric melodies in a modest range for Aïda’s supplication, orchestral explosions for her relief, marching horns and high notes for Amneris’ arrogance, quickened pace and leaping melodies for their agitation. If you didn’t know that Verdi was such a great composer, you would think that the duet had written itself.

more from Jayme Stayer at Hudson Review here.

a time before the snap


Tastes will shift again, no doubt, but right now, and on the evidence of the Met’s exhibit, this is what we value in the Cameron inheritance: the shock, and the privilege, of being looked at by persons from another time. They are clusters and nebulae—physically faded now, yet no less dazzling to the imagination than when they were first observed. The young woman photographed by Cameron in 1866, and boosted with a caption from Milton (“The Mountain Nymph Sweet Liberty”), should by rights be a ghost, peering from the depths of her damaged gloom; and yet, as Herschel said, in awe, “she is absolutely alive and thrusting out her head from the paper into the air.” That mixture of romance and mug shot is threaded through Cameron’s portraits, and her concocted scenes of myth and legend are, similarly, suffused with sincerity and play alike. To that extent, she upheld the peculiar standards of her era, but in other ways she kept them at bay. Contrary to the promises of her daughter, the camera did not amuse her, in ladylike ease, as a fitting diversion for an amateur; it consumed her, firing a career and a faith. She neither resented nor ever relinquished her duties as a wife and mother, and was, in Woolf’s words, “like a tigress where her children were concerned”; she threatened to colonize other people like a one-woman empire. But the fact remains that, when her vocation arrived, in middle age, all her zest and enterprise, far from being frittered away, was driven to a concentrated point. Julia Margaret Cameron found her focus.

more from Anthony Lane at The New Yorker here.

Sad news: Seamus Heaney dies aged 74

Liz Bury in The Guardian:

ScreenHunter_290 Aug. 30 13.50Seamus Heaney, Ireland's first Nobel prize-winning poet since WB Yeats, has died aged 74 in hospital in Dublin after a short illness, his publisher announced this morning.

Heaney won the Nobel prize for literature in 1995 and was celebrated for his many collections of poetry during his lifetime. He won the TS Eliot Prize in 2006 for his collection District and Circle. In 2010 he won the Forward poetry prize for Human Chain, a volume of verse inspired by his experiences after a stroke; his earlier collection The Spirit Level was shortlisted in 1996, as was District and Circle in 2006.

Heaney was born on a small farm near Toomebridge in County Derry, Northern Ireland, in 1939, “the eldest child of an ever-growing family”. In his Nobel address in Stockholm he spoke lovingly of his childhood in a three-roomed thatched farmhouse at Mossbawn where, in their early years, he and his siblings passed “a kind of den-life which was more or less emotionally and intellectually proofed against the outside world”.

After attending boarding school at St Columb's College in Derry city as a scholarship boy – a transition, as he has said, “from the earth of farm labour to the heaven of education” – Heaney went on to study at Queen's University Belfast, where he joined a generation of “Northern poets” that included Michael Longley and Derek Mahon. He published his first major collection, Death of a Naturalist, in 1966.

More here.

A comic walks into a particle accelerator lab…

From The Independent:

CERN-gtThe Cern laboratory will generate a unique collision between comedy and science when the particle physics research centre in Switzerland hosts its first night of stand-up. Six scientists will test their comedy routines at a special performance staged at the Geneva home of the Large Hadron Collider on Friday night. The stand-up show will be broadcast live on the web. Sam Gregson, a University of Cambridge PhD student and Cern affiliated particle physicist who organised the Large Hadron Comedy night, said: “The evening is a great opportunity to enthuse people worldwide about the fantastic work going on at arguably the world's most important scientific facility through an exciting, vibrant and upcoming medium. The use of stand-up comedy allows scientists to engage with audiences that may not attend the usual lectures and exhibitions and helps bring cutting-edge science more into the mainstream spotlight.”

Funny (peculiar?): Jokes for scientists

1. A Higgs boson walks into a bar and asks everyone to take part in an act of penitence. “What are you doing?” asks the barman. “Giving mass.”

2. What did the proton say to the ever-grumpy electron? “Why do you have to be so negative all the time?”

3. Two atoms are walking down the street. One says to the other, “Hey! I think I lost an electron!” The other says, “Are you sure?” “Yes, I’m positive!”

4. Why are quantum physicists crap in bed? Because when they find the position, they can’t find the momentum, and when they have the momentum, they can’t find the position.

5. A Higgs boson walks into a bar. The bartender says, “What’s the matter?” The Higgs replies: “Exactly.”

More here.

Stem cells mimic human brain

From Nature:

BrainWith the right mix of nutrients and a little bit of coaxing, human stem cells derived from skin can assemble spontaneously into brain-like chunks of tissue. Researchers provide the first description and application of these ‘mini-brains’ today in Nature1. “It’s a seminal study to making a brain in a dish,” says Clive Svendsen, a neurobiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who was not involved in the study. “That’s phenomenal.” A fully formed artificial brain might still be years away, he notes, but the pea-sized neural clumps developed in this work could prove useful for researching human neurological diseases. Researchers have previously used human stem cells to grow structures resembling the eye2 and even tissue layers similar to the brain's cortex3. But in the latest advance, scientists developed bigger and more complex neural-tissue clumps by first growing the stem cells on a synthetic gel that resembled natural connective tissues found in the brain and elsewhere in the body. Then, they plopped the nascent clumps into a spinning bath to infuse the tissue with nutrients and oxygen.

“The big surprise was that it worked,” says study co-author Juergen Knoblich, a developmental biologist at the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology in Vienna. The blobs grew to resemble the brains of fetuses in the ninth week of development. Under a microscope, researchers saw discrete brain regions that seemed to interact with one another. But the overall arrangement of the different proto-brain areas varied randomly across tissue samples — amounting to no recognizable physiological structure.

More here.