Tag Archives: science

Dark Light

A little hole in the clouds opens up. I see the sun and the moon. I yell: ‘wohoo!’. The eclipse is not complete, and the hole is there for just five seconds, but it’s enough to propel me back to a field in Luxembourg on August 11th, 1999. It’s the vivid darkness of the moon’s shade.

As kid I was very much drawn to the stars. I used to look up at night. Walking, in the car… Still do, in fact. Especially during the end of my teenage years, I knew a lot about the stars and the planets, and how they all align. The universe. Whatever explanation you wield for their existence, there’s something magical about the way they flicker in that eternal, deep darkness. There’s something mesmerizing about the fact that they float in a space that seems so infinitely big. Those bright lights in that vast darkness are just beautiful.

It must have been March that year when I picked up the phone and heard the voice of my uncle. He didn’t ask for my mom, but presented the news to me. Something spectacular was going to happen, and he and his friends would like to come over to our little farmers’ village in Luxembourg to check it out. I was instantly convinced. In the months that followed, I looked for all the information I could find about eclipses. How they occur, how they look and how exceptional they are. In books and papers, we didn’t have internet back then. I looked so much forward to seeing the sun’s corona.

When the day finally came, we drove out to some fields slightly further south, to have a longer view on the dark totality. Cars were parked alongside all farmers’ roads. For the only time history, it was hard to find a spot. But we did, and got out. My uncle yelled ‘follow the leader’ and up we went, a group of ten, fifteen, in the middle of crowded Luxembourgish nowhere.

Though I wouldn’t be able to find it back, the spot is still here in my memory. There were quite some trees on the north side, growing around a long fence, reaching over the fields. We had a good view over some meadow hills to the south.  It wasn’t that special, really, but it would be fun to return there once. The sun was already quite blinded when we arrived, but we had some time to go, in which we looked at each other in expectancy. After some twenty minutes, gloom approached us over the hills. Birds stopped singing, as we saw the moon silently move in front of the sun.

That deep darkness, surrounded by bright light. The quiet. It seemed so tangibly close. Not the surrounding light, but the darkness itself spoke up that day. Spoke out. Speaks out. It was with me when I ‘wohood’ last week.

In the early 19th century, Johan Wolfgang Goethe experimented with light and dark. He is known as a poet, but Goethe himself was of the opinion that his poetry was average. What really counted to him, were his studies of colours, where he disagreed with the already deceased Isaac Newton on some points. In his view, black light and white light were the two basic forces. All colours were a result of the interplay between the two. Yellow, he saw as white light weakened by dark light. He learned this from staring into a flame in a dark room. Blue, on the opposite end, was black light weakened by white, as occurs in the sunlit blue sky, reducing the vast darkness of the universe. His approach largely reflected the dualistic christian worldview of the opposites ‘good’ as light and ‘bad’ as darkness.

The dominating scientific belief of today teaches that Goethe was wrong. Based on earlier ideas by Newton, darkness is the absence of light, and the colours with their wavelengths together compose white light. Goethe’s response to this idea was that perception is an essential aspect of colour which can not be excluded from the equation. Adding a prism to the experiment means interacting with light, and can thus not be seen as an objective experiment. Goethe’s work still has influence in art. His intention was not to provide explanations, in fact he was against them, his intention was to describe his observations. For him, the psychological impact of light, the question how it moves us, how it triggers our imagination, was an important part of the study.

The room where I grew up could be blinded to total darkness. Most of my friends had night lights, I didn’t. I couldn’t sleep with them. I liked it dark. But I do remember feeling presences. Sometimes I turned the lights back on to check if something was lingering under the bed. That act changed the atmosphere entirely. The feeling of a presence was gone as soon as I turned on the light. As I grew older, I learned that it was my imagination playing tricks on me. Since the eclipse of March 20th, I’m suspecting the darkness itself.

Doesn’t the darkness feel closer than light? More intimate? Or inward focussed at least. For me it has always been a presence, not an absence. Closer than my carotid. It compelled me in 1999, and I saw that again last week. The memory of a beam of black light.

I wonder what the world would have looked like, had Goethe´s ideas been followed in the same way as Newton´s. Would children still fear the dark?

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Marrying words

It just dawned on me that words, in fact, are an experience. Rewind? Okay.

I am adjusting a scientific article on spiritual experiences in nature. One of the central problems is the definition of the word ‘spiritual’. It has so many meanings! It all depends on who describes it. Some authors have the courage to define it as something ‘non dual’. They say that within a spiritual experience, there is no connection between a person and God, because there is no distinction between them.

One can dismiss those words as elitary blah blah, but whoever does that ignores the fact that every word manifests itself as an experience to the one who uses it. He denies the experience of another. It is the same with words such as God or Allah. The user experiences them and they are therefore meaningful.

This is an essential insight for a frequent writer such as myself. It might be one of my core drives. Writing, for me is about letting go, about enjoying the ride. It’s about discovering my relationship to the words, separately and combined. And I invite you as a reader to do the same.

So how did I get entangled in this quest to pin down ‘spirituality’ as a truth seeker? It seems paradoxical to look for objectivity in a place where the topic cannot exist without the lived, personal world. But it’s a beautiful paradox, because the role of the truth seeker brings me to a new experience of the word ‘spiritual’. As a scientist, you have to believe that words have a certain objective meaning in order to create a valid story. Even if only temporary, you have to believe in order to be believed. In that sense, science is not more than a theatrical act, an impersonation of ‘the objective’. And by impersonating the objective, we get into a closer relationship with the word ‘objective’. A word that cannot exist outside of our experience of it.

The relation we ultimately have to our words defines our communication. The more we cling to the word, the more intimately we experience it and the harder we are willing to fight for it. It makes sense, because the way in which we experience our words makes us who we are.

Parsimony

One of the basic rules of today’s science is the law of parsimony. It states that when there are two possible explanations for a given observation, the one that requires the smallest amount of assumptions should be selected as the true one. In other words: a good scientist always strives for the most conservative and simple explanations of the facts.

It makes a lot of sense to avoid needless complexity.  Not only does that make it easier to understand things, it also helps in the communication with other scientists, journalists or your grandma. Overcomplicating things is as exhausting as it is boring and it makes it harder to judge where illusion ends and truth starts. But by sticking too closely to this law, scientists become a self-assuring collective that drift away into a meaningless void, possibly leading exactly to the opposite of what a scientist strives for.

The law of parsimony obliges the trained scientific mind to focus on a problem and avoid looking at its surroundings for as long as possible. If, for example, one wants to study the effects of a medicine on lung cancer, one will not include father-son-relationships or religious beliefs in an experimental design, because they are unlikely to be of influence. Fifty years ago, eating habits, air quality and smoking habits would possibly also not have been included in such research. They are very important factors now.

Parsimony goes hand in hand with the reductionist vision of cause and effect. It has resulted in the rising of different disciplines such as economy, medicine or ecology, where they were once one thing. Even within those fields, there are endless specializations. They distinguish from each other not only by the aspect of life they study, but also by the assumptions they take for granted. The ones they no longer see. What seems obvious to a person from discipline A, may be very far-fetched to a person from discipline B. The result here, is that communication between disciplines becomes harder and harder.

By always looking for the fewest amounts of assumptions, the parsimonious scientist creates a mental island for himself. Our society as a whole is stuck in a construct of assumptions that, by the fact that they are repeated in the classroom, feed the part of our minds in which they seem so clear and logical that they are no longer understood as assumptions. In economy for example: growth is the base. Wouldn’t it help the world if we assumed that dispersal and equality are important, even if we seldom observe them? In medicine: diseases have a physical cause. How about the complex role of the mind? In ecology: plant and animal communities behave according to mathematical models. Isn’t that a disrespectful view?

Parsimony invites us to keep building our understanding on the world we know already. I think science could serve life better if it allowed itself to dive into the unknown.

Sailing on Dreams – February 2014

Once every while, I define or describe Sailing On Dreams. Here’s what I wrote today, combined with something I painted during work this week to inspire the kids:

Constantly looking for truth. Truths, more specifically. Where have humans picked this obsession up? Was it with the invention of doubt? Scientists, on the inquisitive forefront of this search, have developed methods to  disentangle reality-truths from their perceptions. Capture them in objective isolation. Some believe in the theory of everything. A set of words and numbers that explain the existence of cosmos, including ourselves.

Sailing on dreams also is a search for truths. A playful search. I guess the truths in this case are more relational than the scientific ones. Be it called Allah, Bang or Love, the way to know it is to believe in it. If thoughts are the ocean and the boat is the mind, than faith would maybe be the wind that blows upon its sails. It’s in the angles and the power of the confluence of these elements, where a sailor of dreams finds truth. It can be heavy and moving, but it can be gentle and blissful too. It can shake and break the boat, yet it can lead it to new tides, stranger waves and ever-changing colours.

Sailors of dreams will not anchor where the water’s warm and the winds are still: they can’t. They have to keep moving, have to keep searching for the winds, the waves inside themselves. And when, one day, distantly on the horizon, a sailor of dreams sees a fellow boat float by, he’ll wave at it and smile.

Hoax

I see well-educated people spread viral messages with deformed, badly reviewed or simply unjust information about a wide variety of topics. Hoaxes. A sense of sensation seems to drive them to copy bad articles, and spread them further over the web. Popular topics are Monsanto, the EU and our privacy. Power and control, basically.

What is true and what is not? This question has held people’s minds for as long as they exist. Through the ages, there have been opportunities for new beliefs, and they have been either undermined by the dominant players or embraced by them.

The emergence of science provided simple methods that help verify certain statements for truth. As time went on, topics became less straight forward and “truth” turned into “validity”. Some scientific branches evolved into constructs of theories and ideas. These constructs became institutions and these are now defended by those who work for them. Like the fortifications in the Medieval age.

Dollars where spotted. Doubt arose. Scientists now contradict each other. Humanity feels this. Outside of the institutions, some people see truth as no more than a belief. Take the climate sceptics. Valid reasonings are understood as stories that can be undermined. After all, some people say, political forces shape what is considered “true”. And hasn’t the past shown that truth is subjected to the altering force of time? It’s under these circumstances that social media appeared.

Conspiracy theories are not new. What is new, is the way they are spread over the net by people who should know better. What is also new is the way each theory can be traced back to its source. Posts can be tested. If we stop believing in the unquestionable authority of scientists, why not take responsibility and research for ourselves?

The fact that scientists are not always right does not prove that truth is purely a negotiable thing. Truth is also something every individual can honestly strive for. I’d like to invite you, reader, to look through to the sources of your on-line information. It can be quite interesting to see how some stories are blown up when rewritten. And if you plan to re-post something, take a moment to consider your own credibility. Your E-identity is at stake.

With the expansion of social media, the entrance of noise on the line will only get worse. I think it is therefore essential that we all check what we and our friends post and re-post. We have the opportunity to reshape science into something we should all take part in. Knowledge to the people.

What will become of information now lies in the hands of the people who are willing to work for it. Join us.

Cosmic particles

The room is dark except for a laser that shines on a glass box. In it, thousands of micro-sparks alternate each other. Together they shape a self-molding rainbow coloured cloud. This cloud is disturbed by fluorescent lines shooting through as were they falling stars in the distance. The consensus among the people in this room is that these lines are particles, radiated by distant galaxies. I’m not convinced, so I look for the expert.

The day has been nice so far. Together with two friends, my girlfriend Zuzana and I were at a conference about durable materials in Rotterdam. Did you know that humans have invented concrete that heals itself when it breaks? It’s a fusion of dead matter and bacteria. And did you know that by blending shrimps with bio-based oils we are now able to create a material very comparable to insect skin? Super strong, but light as a feather. It’s funny: even though we humans can think, nature does so many things so much better than we do, that all we can really do is imitate her. I think it has to do with her patience.

Whenever I am in a conversation with fellow researchers, I realise how fundamentally differently I think. I strongly believe that our attention is an energy. So if we point our attention somewhere, we create energy wrinkles. Twirls. Such wrinkles in the energy make it impossible to study anything objectively unless we keep our minds unmoved. Patient. Mind control is a prerequisite for any science, I’d say. But scarce among scientists, especially in times where all of us have been familiarized with the phrase “publish or perish”.

But more essentially, we differ in opinions about the meaning of the word fundamental science. For me, the fundament of existance is not a bunch of invisible particles powered by some uncomprehensible force. Those are just human’s mental projections. For me, the fundament of existance is our relationship to our surroundings. This relationship is the base on which phyisicists (and all others) create their picture of the universe. They understand the universe in the way in which they understand themselves.

As separate particles.