Sunday, December 11, 2011

Eminence and demise

The strongest poison ever known
Came from Caesar's laurel crown.

(William Blake, Auguries of Innocence)

William Blake, Book of Urizen, 1794

I have been, in one capacity or another, associated to the world of science for about twenty years. In this span of time I have come across all the possible forms of human nastiness hidden behind the pretense of objectivity of the scientific enterprise, and at the same time I have also repeatedly come into contact with the beauty of science itself. It is because of the latter that I am still engaged in this profession, despite the increasingly impossible task of dealing with the first.

"The eminence of a scientist is measured by the length of time he can hold up progress in his own field."

It is hard to locate the exact source of this much quoted aphorism. Personally, I heard it mentioned for the first time back when I was a young physics student. At that time I heard it attributed to one of the founding fathers of quantum mechanics. Later, I stumbled upon it repeatedly, with various attributions, ranging over a broad spectrum of distinguished representatives of various scientific disciplines. Some may think it is an expression of cynicism, but in fact hardly ever anything more truthful was said about the community of scientists.

Science, by its very own nature, is in the strongest possible terms a denial of any position of power and authority. By definition science is about questioning, about the rigorous scrutiny of all assertions, about skepticism, about bold creativity balanced by the utmost respect for intellectual honesty. In principle, in science there is no room for self aggrandizing fantasies.

In principle... that is the problem. In reality, this truthful spirit of science is continually deceived by the darker side of human nature. Despite all the mechanisms in place in the functioning of the scientific community that are designed to prevent exactly this happening, there is an endless supply of ego-obsessed power-hungry narcissists out there, who would rather run over all established conventions of correct professional behavior in order to reinforce their own feudal power structure.

Unfortunately, in certain fields of science, one such person in a position of power suffices to ruin the whole community, by actively pushing bright young people away from the field, and only tolerating those who readily submit and never dare to challenge the ruler. This can lead easily to disastrous situations by which important opportunities for scientific discoveries are lost, missed or actively prevented, because of the peculiar idiosyncrasies of the dominant ruler, who, in his "knows-it-all" self-proclaimed infallibility attitude, will readily dismiss what could have been important directions of development.

Picasso, King of Minotaurs, 1958

A monstrous minotaur trapped in the center of his labyrinth of mirrors, endlessly looking at his own distorted, multiplied, and reflected images, which are all he will ever be able to see. Science, if it ever was of any importance, is reduced to a mere tool of self-affirmation. The key to the scientific spirit is that we do not project our prejudices upon what we are trying to understand. This is impossible for the kind of narcissistic character I am describing. In the way of example, if this "little father of the nation" had not been breaking into a childish tantrum whenever he would hear the word supersymmetry, and if most of the people working in the field for the past twenty years had not been shitting in their pants at the thought of crossing him, we would have had by now a much broader range of possibilities in our models and we would have credible estimates now that the relevant data are coming in. People with reasonable guts are on it now, but it won't make up for all the time lost. Or, if the same person had not been always so frightened at the thought of possibly encountering people who are smarter than he is, we would not have two completely separate branches of the same field that hardly communicate with each other and we would have made a lot more progress much faster.

"Empty space is a place where man wishes to find asylum... In this empty space he wishes to stand outside views, images, and conceptions, outside struggle and existence which has shattered into little pieces like ice that hinders his movements, pushing him in different directions... He seeks spaciousness... he will find a location that is without path..." (Kasimir Malevich)

As anyone who's been reading my blog (or who's been paying attention to what happened in the field) surely knows, I've been locked into an all out war for the past three years. I did not want it. I did not initiate it. I did not even imagine that it could ever happen, but it did, and I have learned the hard way that it is here to stay. It has worn me out, endlessly, transforming my waking hours into an inescapable battlefield and my sleep into a panoply of monsters. And it escalates, continuously, like all the strategies of tension inevitably do. My own existence has indeed been shattered into endless fragments, and I wish I could find a way to step out of all this, into that "empty space" Malevich so powerfully evoked in his paintings, where only beautiful geometry exists, away from all this meaningless struggle. "The location that is without path", without rulers who try to impose on everyone their cheap revelations. I am tired. Tired, exhausted. Tired of having to fight around every single paper, around the fate of every student. Tired of the endless negotiations with conference organizers to avoid direct (and potentially violent) confrontations. Tired of trying to anticipate the next move, or having to respond to the previous one. My mind has stalled, locked in this impossible endless siege, forever balancing a precarious equilibrium over the edge of the abyss in the middle of a raging storm.

William Blake, Book of Urizen, 1794

In a last desperate attempt to set boundaries to the conflict, and to avoid more and more people being unwillingly dragged into the battlefield, I argued, about students and younger people caught in the crossfire, that "it is not just professionally incorrect but profoundly unjust that they should become collateral casualties in this war". There was no answer, but within days a very concrete retaliatory act aimed precisely at those people I was hoping to spare provided an eloquent answer and signaled a further escalation of tension. So, I have no choice but to escalate too, which is what I am presently doing.

Meanwhile, there are journal editors who would not handle my papers for fear of retribution, and others that are so inactive that young collaborators are losing their jobs because of papers being buried for years in the refereeing process. I cannot blame them though for chickening out: I know how impossible a struggle it is to sustain, and I understand very well how others may fear going through it themselves. I would not wish this nightmare upon anybody else. I would have gladly avoided it too, if only I had been given the choice, but not at the cost of having to disappear.

There are conference volumes (for which, incidentally, I did the entire editorial work) in which the official photographs of the event were printed so carefully cut, that neither I nor persons close to me would any longer appear in the same frame with the overlord (I have the originals of the pictures for anyone who cares to compare). I mistakenly thought that only Stalin was in the habit of making people disappear from official photographs, once they had fallen out of grace. From what I hear, at the conferences in the field, where I no longer go, it has become highly undesirable for my name to be publicly pronounced. There is a very interesting book, called "The commissar vanishes" dedicated to the Stalinist art of "removal" of undesired former comrades from all the official records. I could easily write a similar volume: "The collaborator disappears".

The problem is exactly that I did not dutifully disappear when the ruler so wished: in an unexpected act of defiance, I continued to exist. Surprisingly, I am still here, alive and working.

...hija de una voluntad para la que no se conocen palabras de este lado del delirio... (Julio Cortázar, La prosa del observatorio)

Well, if one can really call this working, this desperate rush to fight back on all fronts. It has very little in it left of what I always felt scientific work should be. It has none of the pleasure of savoring the learning of new things, the slow developments of new ideas, the sudden burst into light of unexpected connection, the flash of recognition, none of the exhilarating sense of freedom in thinking about what one likes, in doing what one enjoys doing. There is hardly any room left for that, when one is locked into a fight like this: there is no way one can lower the guard for even a single moment, to create room for oneself to enjoy the peaceful contemplation of a thought. One can only fight on, blow after blow, bloody wound after bloody wound. otra manera, desde otro punto de partida, hacia otra cosa hay que emplumar y lanzar la flecha de la pregunta... [op.cit.]

An eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind, the Mahatma rightly said, but here it is an impossible lose-lose situation. If I quit the field, he wins. That's what he's been trying to achieve all along over the past three years. Plus, I give up nearly fifteen years invested in this work and I leave behind younger people who have put their trust into the mentoring I promised to offer them, for what it's worth. If I don't give up, the struggle carries on, which is all very well as a political program, but in practice it means he wins also, because he's keeping me prisoner of a defensive structure inside a world of his own creation.

...sus máquinas hicieron frente a un destino impuesto desde fuera, al Pentágono de galaxias y constelaciones colonizando al hombre libre, sus artificios de piedra y bronce fueron las ametralladoras de la verdadera ciencia, la gran respuesta de una imagen total frente a la tiranía de planetas y conjunciones y ascendentes; el hombre Jai Singh, pequeño sultán de un vago reino declinante, hizo frente al dragón de tantos ojos, contestó a la fatalidad inhumana con la provocación del mortal al toro cósmico... [op.cit.]

The only possible future is in the continuation of the present. The only hope is in trying to hold the ground, one day at a time, while slowly trying to explore other less threatening territories, not yet littered with corpses, without the acrid stench of a bloodied battlefield. Holding out, day after day, for as long as it will take for time to run its course, orchestrating eminence's demise (egestatem, potestatem, dissolvit ut glaciem), provided I can survive that long. It already felt like an impossible task to hold out for these past three years. I cannot bear to imagine how this can continue to drag on, day after day, for a decade. My own creativity, not to say anything of general mental well being, has already suffered an enormous amount in getting this far.

...habrá que seguir luchando por lo inmediato, compañero, porque Holderlin ha leído a Marx y no lo olvida; pero lo abierto sigue ahí, pulso de astros y anguilas, anillo de Moebius de una figura del mundo donde la conciliación es posible, donde anverso y reverso cesarán de desgarrarse, donde el hombre podrá ocupar su puesto en esa jubilosa danza que alguna vez llamaremos realidad. [op.cit.]

The struggle carries on, because there is no other choice, really. And in the process of attending to my survival, maybe, just maybe, I can still try to rediscover, once again, what it was really all about, to begin with. What it really meant to do science. I am still hoping to find the door that will lead outside of this impossible situation, and back to that healthier state where science can once again be science, and be filled with pleasure and not with anguish.

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.

(William Blake, Auguries of Innocence)

Jaipur, Observatory

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

the challenge of Job

Perhaps Antonio Negri, better than anybody else, is the philosopher who can speak the words of Job in our modern time. The atheist, communist philosopher who spent a good part of his life in jail for crimes he never committed, gives us a compelling reading of the biblical text as a metaphor of labor relations, of relation to power and authority. In Negri's reading Job views God as the Antagonist, as the exercise of an empty and unjust command, as the ultimate abuse of authority, unmitigated by any moral value. In that, he sees the struggle of Job against God as an image of the struggle of labor against capital. At the same time, of course, one reads everywhere in between the lines the more personal suffering of the author at the hands of and unjust and repressive power that locked him away for decades, to eliminate an uncomfortable intellectual presence. Job is "beyond Stakhanov" in surpassing the socialist retributive theory of justice and in his determination to challenge the measure of value, in the face of God's sarcasm. He remains unmoved in his challenge, in calling out the injustice of God, in front of a world of Behemoths and Leviathans. In Negri's words: "Every illusion or utopia of a common measure has dissolved. Hence the relationship is one of conflict, of war."

William Blake, Behemoth and Leviathan, Book of Job, plate 15 (detail), 1826

Job has the courage, in the face of immense suffering, to challenge God, to call him out for the brutal dictator he really is, the Great Fascist, the ultimate self centered Narcissist who does not care about what damage he unleashes in the world, how much suffering he causes. Job stands his ground against the omnipotent: first by speaking out and then by holding his indignant silence and not breaking down, despite the immense and completely undeserved suffering that the divinity imposed on him, purely to prove his own indifference to human suffering and total lack of empathy. What kind of a divine being is that? Can't one imagine a more benign divine form? Part of the message of Job is that this is an inevitable part of the structure of power embodied in the divine principle. When Yahweh appears in the whirlwind and mocks Job asking him whether he has ever had the experience of authority that God has, he is precisely making the point: what makes the divine a Great Dictator, an authoritarian principle gone horribly bad is precisely his grip on power, his position of absolute unchallenged ruler. The challenge of Job is at the cost of immense and unbearable pain, of the kind that in all real life situations those who challenge dictators and narcissist rulers are likely to suffer endlessly. Yet, revolutions happen and dictators fall, when finally the lone voice of Job challenging the absolute ruler is joined by the many, until the challenge becomes a chorus of voices so loud and so powerful that it forces change and the absolute God finally crumbles and dissolves.

C.G.Jung also had his take on the book of Job, in his famous "An answer to Job", where he comes out full force about "the evil face of God" and the landmark position of this ancient text as the first open "criticism of God". In terms of Jungian psychology, the evil side of God is the shadow, the fourth person of the trinity or the fourth function of the psyche. Perhaps he has a point there: the exercise of power brings out the shadow, the inner darkness. As Victor Serge recalls in his beautiful novel "The conquered city", about the civil war that followed the Russian Revolution, when the revolutionary Anarchists victoriously entered Ekaterinoslav, they carried large banners with the words "No Poison is More Deadly Than Power!". They were right, but if it is so, then an omnipotent God has no other face but the evil face and no other substance but shadow. There is but the evil god and it is the duty of humankind to fight against him for their own existence.

William Blake, Book of Job, plate 16 (detail), 1826

While in the biblical text Job falls short of cursing God, the reader inevitably goes one step forward and recognizes the divine principle portrayed in the scriptures as harmful to humankind. This already happened in antiquity.
In the Gnostic tradition (by which Jung himself was profoundly influenced) the Biblical god is transformed into a lesser god of the inferior world, the ruler over matter, sometime diluted into the plurality of the Archons. This lesser ruler, Yaltabaoth, is "ignorant of the force of Pistis", the higher principle of knowledge who reigns in the higher worlds above the veil of Maya (a concept conveniently borrowed from Hinduism), and whose personification is Sophia. The Biblical god is here a dark and almost malignant entity. In "The hypostasis of the Archons" and "On the origin of the world", the two main texts of the Nag Hammadi library, one finds a very interesting twist of perspective on the book of Genesis. Adam is a lesser creation of the lower gods, while Eve is the higher manifestation of Sophia. They are saved from captivity in the garden of Eden, imposed on them by the ruling Archons, through the serpent (who is the hero in this version of the story), who gives them access to the tree of Knowledge, which is also the tree of Life.

Mondrian, horizontal tree, 1911

In the higher world there is Knowledge, that is where the Science we wish to pursue for its intrinsic beauty resides, the attractive and peaceful world of Pistis and Sophia. Its image reflected on the waters of the lower world attracts all the Yaltabaoths, the power hungry Archons, who see the beauty of knowledge reflected in the pool of water and imagine that they see themselves. They imagine themselves gods because they have the strength of power. They see the embodiment of Sofia and they can only think of defiling her. They live of power and of their own aggrandized self image. In this world beneath there is no more pursuit of knowledge for its own beauty, no more pleasure or enjoyment in the making of science, but only struggle and suffering for those who follow the call of Sofia and eat of the tree of Knowledge, so that they may see the deception of Yaltabaoth, or fake earthly paradises for those who wish to remain ignorant and continue to follow blindly the dictatorship of the Archons.

Antonio Negri's book on Job is dedicated "to the few who did not repent" and "to the new generations". This is indeed what one can hope for: the last survival of resistance that cannot be crushed, joining forces with those who will have the advantage of time, because the omnipotent but not immortal Yaltabaoth will eventually have to disappear and give way to the future. Let Pistis return.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Books not t-shirts!

There is an online petition whose text reads as follows:

Caltech used to have one of the very best scientific bookstores in the country. Three years ago the Caltech administration, without consulting faculty and students, decided to close it down. Not only the bookstore was important to the faculty in their research and to students for the selling of textbooks and other reference books, but closing down the bookstore in one of the most prestigious universities also sends a terribly wrong signal to the general public and the community. We increasingly live in a time where anti-scientific and anti-intellectual feelings and attitudes are on the rise, and where cultural and intellectual values need the strongest possible endorsement from our centers of scientific excellence. Caltech had a model bookstore that delivered to its community of scholars and to the general public the best of our scientific and technological culture. Despite requests from the faculty and the recommendation of the appointed committee, and despite a promise from the administration that the bookstore would reopen, three years have gone by with no credible sign of its reopening. Its place has been occupied by a travesty of store selling t-shirts and flip-flops. Tell Caltech: Books not t-shirts!

I urge all to add their signatures to this petition who agree with the statement that a world-renown university without a hint of an academic bookstore is a tragic sign of a very worrisome anti-cultural trend that is taking hold of even the places that should stand firm in defense of intellectual values. You can sign the petition here:

Caltech Bookstore Petition

The petition is by no means restricted to members of the Caltech community. It is of direct interest to anyone who values books and values culture and who understands the importance of having a place where one can browse real books and make those precious random serendipitous encounters with unexpected books, encounters that have the power to ignite our creativity, to spark a new direction of thought, unexpectedly.

People these days easily object that one can buy books online and Amazon has better prices. Sure thing it often does, but in order to buy something there you need to know which book you want to buy. The automated generator of recommendations works rather poorly and, especially when it comes to the scientific literature, the possibility to browse the whole text and not a selected handful of pages from the introduction makes a crucial difference. There is more: in a physical bookstore books are arranged on shelves according to some criterion of proximity, which (except for literature, where it is often nothing else than the alphabetical order of the author's name) often is arranged to reflect proximity of content. This is what often produces new mental associations and leads us to new encounters and discoveries, in ways that are impossible to reproduce in online retailers of physical and electronic books.

I can supply from my own experience at scientific research a large collection of examples of ideas that became research papers that were generated by random encounters with books in physical bookstores. This is why, whenever I visit a university or a city anywhere, the very first thing I check out are the bookstores.

The US have seen the recent collapse of the Borders national chain of bookstores. They were quick to blame the economic crisis, the competition of the online stores like Amazon, and the rise of the e-books. That all of these may have contributed is likely true, but they completely failed to see one other major cause: in the last few years the quality of the books available in Borders stores around the country has consistently gone down the drain! What can beat the online competitors is not a mediocre lousy bookstore with more expensive prices, obviously, but a high quality and highly selected bookstore that offers the alternative to the online stores where you have to sort through endless crap to get to find in their catalog the valuable books (which you will never find unless you knew already exactly what you were looking for). This is what Borders utterly failed to comprehend. Not surprisingly, when their stores began to liquidate, the "good quality products" (the few serious science titles, the philosophy and linguistics section, the best picks in the literature, the Oxford series of the Latin and Greek authors, the Criterion Collection DVDs, foreign movies, etc) where gone within hours, while the piles and piles of unsellable crap they filled the rest of their stores with stayed on the shelf up until the moment when they started selling it off at more than 80% discount. I have observed this happening in exactly the same way at several different locations I had the occasion of visiting in different parts of the country.

What this says is clear: the public (at least in the US) is becoming more polarized, like the whole of American society. The few who read are those who are highly educated and want high quality products. Those are the ones a bookstore can live off, because they are those who buy books frequently. The others don't read, period. There is no point having large bookstores filled with crap that can be found in every magazine stand in any regional airport, and which can easily be located online at lower prices, but it does pay to have smaller, very high quality, somewhat more specialized bookstores that aim at a particular kind of public (which exists, at least in the proximity of any university campus, or in any sufficiently urbanized area).

Those who claimed that the book is dead are mistaken. The book plays a fundamental role in culture and learning and in the fostering of our intellectual curiosity and pleasure, as much now as it ever did, but it demands attention and intelligence in the handling of its distribution and selling. Intelligence is exactly what the big chains like Borders lack, and what the bureaucrats that administer universities are also sadly deprived of.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Dream and the Underworld

One of the most interesting modern developments of Jungian style psychology can be found in James Hillman's book "The Dream and the Underworld". Starting from the classical psychoanalytic premise of dreams as the bridge between the conscious mind and the depths of the unconscious, Hillman moves away from concepts like Freudian repression or Jungian compensation, towards a different and perhaps more intriguing view, that links the inward journey into the dream world to the soul searching journeys to the Underworld of Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Eliot.

Whether or not dreams really belong to the world of Hades and our experience of them compares to the famous descents to the Underworld of the literary masterpieces of antiquity and of our time, certainly the Underground exists in our minds as a pervasive metaphor of the Underworld and of the unconscious, in compensatory opposition and tense dialog with the conscious mind that lives out in the daylight its above-ground existence.

The Underground is a place of hiding, or resistance, to the point that it has become the very synonym of the Resistance movements that fight against oppressive regimes, starting from the heroic World War II anti-nazi resistance movement across Europe. The Underworld, on the other hand, is not only the realm of the dead. It has also become, in our modern city life, a synonym of the low life, the one that we imagine intent at carrying out shady deals in dark alleys, the living dead of the urban frontier, cast at the margins of society. Exclusion, resistance, opposition, diversity, hunted souls living in hiding, plotting in the darkness: this is all that the world below our world suggests to the imagination.

The Underground is also an image of highly elaborate structures: the subway lines that form the arteries of transportation in our big cities and the intricate texture of pipes and cables that form the nervous system of the information age and the functioning infrastructure of our daily life.

How the emergence of modern society shaped the imagination of the Underground is a theme beautifully analyzed in Rosalind Williams' remarkable book "Notes on the Underground", where the evolution of modern technology goes hand in hand with the evolution of the symbolic significance that our minds project onto the Underworld, while human beings came to penetrate more substantially the space below and transform it with the indelible signature of human presence and intervention. Starting with the dawn of the industrial era and moving on into the information age, the mineshaft, the sewer, the subway, and the more and more extensive urban infrastructure have accompanied the literary worlds created by Verne, Wells, and Hugo, in providing us with the modern imagination of the Underworld.

Yet our dealings with the darkness of caves and the world below the earth surface date as far back as the dawn of humanity and so is, possibly, its connection to dreams and the inner journeys of the mind. The earliest signature of human culture we can trace back into the ages is in the Chauvet Cave in southern France, recently beautifully portrayed in Herzog's documentary "Cave of Forgotten Dreams". In the depth of this cave a human hand of 30,000 years ago drew spectacular images: groups of galloping horses, cave lions, woolly rhinos, bears, bisons. Animal species that no longer are, but whose traces are still preserved, fossilized in the cave rocks, as well as narrated by the hand of the human being who dared to penetrate a dark nest of predatory bears to live a signature of our presence, an act of triumph over fear, or symbolic conquest of animal souls and spirits captured in an immortal narrative.

(paintings of Chauvet Cave from Herzog's "Cave of Forgotten Dreams")

The birth of art, of culture, of human expression could only happen in the darkness of an Underworld populated by monsters. That was the very first descent into the Underworld and the one to which all others, conjured in more modern literate times, ultimately conform to. We are all that 30,000 years old human being who walked into the depths of the underground caves and drew paintings on the walls, and signed that acts with ochre colored palm prints.

(paintings of Chauvet Cave from Herzog's "Cave of Forgotten Dreams")

A hand, a signature, repeated many times on the rocky surface, a cluster of signs, a form of writing, a cry, a name. We are the same human beings who used to walk in those caves so far back in history that the word "history" itself ceases to make sense. We carry those dreams in our minds, in our species' mind. Call it "the collective unconscious" if you wish, or "the collective psyche", as Jung used to. It is part of us and it lives on.

Our "collective conscious" has evolved above the surface of the earth and in the daylight of our conscious minds. It has generated our modern scientific and technological world. Below the surface, we continue to visit caves, confront our monsters, conduct our rituals of artistic creation, and leave our signature there.

Under the surface of one of the focal points of our solar scientific dream, one of the world's best and most selective universities, powerhouse of scientific research and technological invention, there lies a network of tunnels and steampipes, ventilation systems that feed the labs, a net of infrastructure made of dark labyrinths of concrete and steel, water leaks, abandoned pieces of equipment, discharged office furniture, gaping holes and narrow passages.

Every night, the young men and women, who are going through the harsh and rigorous training of their scientific education in the classrooms and labs of the university above the ground, descend deep beneath the surface. They meet and travel together along the steam tunnels.

They draw paintings on the walls and write poems in many languages of the past and present time. They sign with their hand prints like their ancestors did on cave walls 30,000 years ago.

They perform rituals in dark passageways to prove their courage, running and screaming in dark tunnels, or to prove their cleverness, setting up complicated labyrinths of laser beams. The modern mind and the ancient mind find their meeting ground.

The pressure accumulated in the days of harsh challenges that constitute our modern initiation rites to the elite of the scientific world come to find their nocturnal release down the tangle of pipes in the hot and wet tunnels below the surface. The images and words on the walls tell stories not unlike those Ur-stories of the ancient caves. Bears and lions have been replaced by other monsters, by other fears, but the Underground remains the ritual place of descent, where fears are conquered by a creative act and where our human wholeness is finally restored.

The Underground is the place where life and death come face to face, the place for conquering fear, for gaining the strength of Resistance and endurance. A descent to the Underworld is a rite of passage: for Dante it was the crossing of that middle point of our life, for Odysseus and Aeneas the dialog with the shadows of the Underworld brought knowledge, in Eliot's "Waste Land" it is already our modern psychic Underworld, though still populated by the ancient Sybil and Tiresias. It is no coincidence that the entrance door to the Caltech Underground, in the basement of the undergraduate dorm, is inscribed with Dante's words, "Lasciate ogni speranza, o voi che entrate". It is the gateway to Dante's Inferno that opens the doors to the transformative experience that leads one on, eventually, to the discovery of worlds: conquering fear, facing the darkness without and within, just like our ancestors did, in the cave of the bears. We are modern and ancient, our mind is primitive and intellectual, and each needs the other for the alchemy of the creative process to take place. Science is a world of refined marvels and of cruel conflicts and we need an adequate language to express both.

The rites of passage, as the journeys to the Underworld, and deeply personal and yet they are shared experiences. They are transmitted on from one generation to the next. The art of painting on the cave walls in the early days of humanity was taught and learned and transmitted across the generations. The modern language of science is taught and learned and we hope to transmit it and preserve it across the encroaching obscurantism of the dark ages. Those who have already experienced their rite of passage also act as guides to the routes of the Underworld, like Dante's Virgil or Homer's Tiresias, who, without seeing, could see with the mind.

Another apt metaphor of our time for the journey to the Underworld is Tarkovsky's movie "Stalker", where the theme of the guide that offers a safe passage across the Waste Land and its obscure perils is expanded in its most profound and captivating form.

The premise is the story in the Strugatsky brothers' novel "Roadside picnic": amidst the destruction brought to "the Zone" by a encounter with an alien civilization, whether leftovers of a brief passage or accidental wreck, the "stalkers" guide people deep into the territory affected by frightening and incomprehensible phenomena. Its margins populated with mutated and traumatized people, its inaccessible interior scattered with strange artifacts, the zone is an Underworld of the nuclear age and the voyage described in "Stalker" a poetic retelling of the descent, of the facing of fear and death, and of ultimate transformation.

Friday, April 8, 2011

City Lights

Choose your enemies carefully, for they will define you.
Make them interesting, 'cause in some ways they will mind you.
They're not there in the beginning, but when your story ends,
they're gonna last with you longer than your friends.

(U2 - Cedars of Lebanon)

Physics conference standoff seemingly resolved. Los Angeles night: beer and Spinoza. The script Tariq Ali wrote for the theater play "The trials of Spinoza", later turned into a short documentary movie, gives a poignant portrait of a philosopher struggling for a defense of reason in a society crippled by superstition and in the grip of the religious wars that ravaged Europe in his time, and proposing a striking view of "the divine" that denied the supernatural of the personal god of traditional religions in favor of the immanent and natural marvel of an impersonal universe.

Up again at 4 am, heading to San Francisco, the last refuge of the troubled minds. First stop, Anarchist Bookfair, trying to get hold of the elusive small Anarchist publisher to whom I entrusted the manuscript of my first novel, dating back to other standoffs and other enemies ten years back. My recent trip back to the Ivy League environment that originally inspired it made me all the more aware of how good people are, some years down the line, at rewriting history. So I want all the more to have it out, that old crappy science fiction novel of mine, because at least that's a tangible record that history cannot be rewritten, just as my blog posts of these more recent years will prevent others, who are already trying to rewrite everything as if I had never existed, from attempting the same murky game. That old novel is not just a story of a dysfunctional scientific community in a distant but not so unrecognizable future. It is also a reflection on the difficult historic dialog between Communism and Anarchism throughout the tradition of the workers movement struggles, and that's why it ended up in the hands of my Anarchist comrades up in the Bay Area.

The plane flies low for an hour over the Californian coast: Santa Barbara, the islands, Big Sur, Monterey, the Bay: all this tragic beauty of landscape, this breath-taking marvel of mountains and reefs, is just a deep powerful scream of rock emerging from the depths of a moving Earth. Meanwhile, I read Gerald Raunig's "A thousand machines". As all the postmodernist writings, the book wanders around between loosely connected themes, all vaguely linked by the "machine" theme, first traced back to the treatment Marx gives both in the Grundrisse and in Das Kapital, and then jumping around between movies, psychoanalysis and philosophy, ancient texts, modern activism and all that. I generally don't much like this style, but this short book made for a good reading. Three of the themes touched upon seemed to resonate with me at this particular time: bicyles, the theater machines, and what the author calls the "war machines".

Regardless of the author's specific viewpoint and examples, bicycles are a statement of resistance: resistance to the imposition of motorization, a statement of personal courage and the strength to face up to coercion, the courage to say "No" to the car bullies and to a society that tries to silence dissent. The theater machines of ancient Greece, from which the word "machine" itself derives, the "deus ex machina" of the Latins, was the trick Euripides used to get his tragedies to some kind of resolution after a complete impasse had been reached in an impossibly complicated situation. From the theater machines of antiquity, the author moves on to those of modernity, especially to the Soviet avant-garde theater of the years immediately following the Russian Revolution, with its fragmentation of the bourgeois theater, its use of the Dadaist and Constructivist elements, the body-machines, the "Theater of Illusions". The "war machine" the author refers to is not, as one may at first think, the big apparatus of war maneuvered by the Nation States in their aggression tactics, but rather the small and spontaneous arising of strategies of anarchist resistance based on the micro-political, artistic-activist practices of intervention. In the words of the author, "the martial dimension of the war machine consists of the power of invention, in the capacity for change, in the creation of other worlds". The modest and unassuming nature of these assaults perpetually operated on a line of flight, nonetheless allow it to become an effective weapon that can carry out a siege of the seemingly impenetrable walls of power. In the words of the anonymous author who treated the war tactics of the barbarians challenging the suffocating rule of Rome, "machina multa minax minitatur maxima muris". My whole scientific work in the past three years has been a "war machine" in this specific sense.

San Francisco: N-Judah rolls its metal wheels and cranks its music of steel up the hills and down again towards the ocean. Off at Golden Gate Park, and there they are, black clothes, bicycles only (the Revolution will not be motorized), vegan food, and book stands, lots of them, on the floor outside and on the tables indoors, the whole archipelago of the radical anarchist publishing scene. I get hold of my publisher: yes, of course, my science fiction is not science fiction, that much I knew. It wasn't meant to be, otherwise I would have given it to a different kind of publisher. Alright, things seem to be moving forward anyway, in some direction, in the way you expect it to happen in the anarchist world: the spontaneous emergence of ordered structures and complexity from chaotic dynamical systems. That's the way Anarchy works.

Second stop, inevitably, City Lights Bookstore, the publisher of Howl and cradle of the Beat Generation. Two years ago, during my Berkeley months, when I was just beginning to understand how tragically misplaced my trust and friendship had been for so many years, I often ended up here, this side of the Bay, down in the basement of City Lights, where more than half a century ago Ginsberg gave his first public reading of Howl. Now things are different: I am no longer at the stage where I still have to recognize and accept what is happening. I am no longer shocked at anything, I am only fighting an endless and meaningless war of survival. So I can now come here again, with eyes that have become accustomed to looking upon the ugliness of personality cults and sickening ego complexes disfiguring the face of science. I can now finally sit on the stairs leading to the attic of City Lights, where the largest collection of the Beat literature is housed, and read slowly from Ginsberg's "Plutonian Ode".

Radioactive Nemesis were you there at the beginning
black Dumb tongueless unsmelling blast of Disillusion?
I chant your absolute Vanity. Yeah monster of Anger
birthed in fear O most
Ignorant matter ever created unnatural to Earth! Delusion
of metal empires!
Destroyers of lying Scientists! Devourer of covetous
Generals, Incinerator of Armies & Melter of Wars!
I dare your Reality, I challenge your very being! I
publish your cause and effect!
I turn the Wheel of Mind on your three hundred tons!
Your name enters mankind's ear! I embody your
ultimate powers!
My oratory advances on your vaunted Mystery! This
breath dispels your braggart fears! I sing your
form at last

(Allen Ginsberg - Plutonian Ode)

Berkeley in the afternoon: the small street market down Telegraph Avenue, selling psychedelic accessories, the sweet smell of pot in the air. I am here to deliver another general audience lecture on my scientific work at Revolution Books, the small alternative bookstore run by the Revolutionary Communist Party of America. I slowly go through my slides presentation on mathematics and cosmology. The audience asks very intelligent questions: for a non-scientifically trained public, this is the best you could hope for in terms of an audience that really cares about every word you say. I go out with the Party members for drinks after the talk, and some conversation. Lots of questions still about my talk, nice intelligent questions: people who care about learning science in every way they can. Then more talking, political. The historic seeds of distrust between Communists and Anarchists are all too painfully evident even today, even in this stronghold of the radical Left that is the Bay Area. "So, your novel is with the Anarchists? Oh, it's in good hands: they haven't lost it yet?" Come on, comrades, we did this mistake many times before. If Communists and Anarchists hadn't started fighting each other out in Barcelona, instead of putting their energies into fighting the Fascists, maybe we wouldn't have lost the Spanish Civil War, as Orwell so sharply and convincingly documents in his "Homage to Catalonia".

As usual in my life, I am caught in between two worlds, sharing too much of both to be partial to either. Communism is, down to its crude essence, about believing in the future - the Radiant Future. One thing you can count on with communists is that they will be ready to defend science with their lives, which is a rare quality in the increasingly obscurantist world of today. I would not have become a scientist, had it not been for the Communist Party back home, and the effort it made to help us get the good science books, pumping up the enthusiasm, helping the young generation see in science the key to a better future for humankind. Now, when I give these simple lectures here, for the restricted audience of the Berkeley Communists, just blocks away from the shiny big science of UC Berkeley, I see again the same enthusiasm, the same uncontaminated trust in the beauty and the revolutionary mission of science. I bask in the shining light of their untarnished optimism.

My optimism was murdered, leaving behind a dark phantasm. This is why, by now, I tend to consort more easily with the complex darkness of Anarchy than with the radiant sun of Socialism. The dialog on science with the anarchists is considerably more complex, for one thing, because a good number of them actually do have a science background. Many of the movers and shakers behind the Californian anarchist scene are trained in science and technology and belong to that vast area of cyberculture that emerged directly from the counterculture. They are the super-hackers, who live by day as software developers in the sunny silicon valley glamour of advanced technology and construct by night a network of resistance and insurgency. Some of them have turned viscerally anti-scientific, advocating various forms of green-anarchist neo-primitivism, not because they do not have enough knowledge of science, but because they have seen too much of the inner workings of the scientific community. That's what makes the discussion so complicated: I know what they know that I know about the structures of power enmeshed within the apparent beauty and purity of science. There is no optimism to appeal to there, no radiant future left to build, just an endless struggle of resistance: the war machine. They speak directly to what I have become.

Love wears down to bare truth
My heart hurt me much in youth
Now I hear my real heart beat
Strong and hollow thump of meat

(Allen Ginsberg - Lack love)

As in Tariq Ali's Spinoza script, I have learned what it is like to be excommunicated by the vanity of the official orthodoxy of this dusty corner of scientific paradigm, and yet I still long for that old socialist vision, for its untarnished optimism, for the absolute trust in the beauty of science. That's why I came, on my knees, to knock at the door of the Revolutionary Communist Party, asking them to allow me to talk to them once more about science, asking them for a share of their optimism, of the brightness of their radiant sun. Despite all the pain and disillusionment, I still believe that there is beauty in truth and truth in beauty and that science is the last remaining form of poetry in which we can still sing an ode to the universe.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Mixing memory and desire

April is the cruellest month, breeding
lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
memory and desire, stirring
dull roots with spring rain.

(T.S.Eliot, The waste land)

Roman Polanski - Macbeth (Banquo's ghost)

Yes, it is conference season once again, that cruel season when the dead are being dug up from their shallow and restless graves. This year the choice is between the conferences I should have been invited to and was not because the Lord and Lady Macbeth do not like their banquets disturbed by bleeding ghosts, and those I was forced to turn down myself, because, after some time, even a ghost runs out of blood to smear more banquets with. So far I had kept only one last conference in the list, a small physics conference I had erroneously thought would be a safe space for me to go to, until I realized that even that last corner of existence is denied. I'll let that go as well: I am tired of this endless war, this endless bleeding out. Tired of perennially fighting back, with the last hope gone of a moment in a future history of the universe, a remote corner of space and time, where I may finally be at peace.

Roman Polanski - Macbeth (Banquo's ghost)

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
you cannot say, or guess, for you know only
a heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
and the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
and the dry stone no sound of water.

(T.S.Eliot, The waste land)

Where is the Birnam wood? Why comes it not? Or have the witches now deceiving words for us, the dead, as well as for the living? We, ghosts, will keep on fighting, will keep returning to haunt the Thane of Cawdor, because there is nothing else that keeps us afloat between this world and the night. When all is done and said, when all my blood is drained and all your talks are given, and the curtain falls once more upon this darkness, there will be left but a barren landscape of desolation, a scanty meal for the worms, and the same unspoken question: "What for?" Were your insatiable ambitions, your unrelenting egos, worth the destruction of friendship, trust, intellectual affinities, and ultimately human lives?

Roman Polanski - Macbeth (Birnam wood)

When fight is to life what ghosts are to shadows, when the swamps of memory harbor a decaying hostage conscience and desire, and blind windows stare upon a petrified world of nightmares -the burnt out desert that you casually and carelessly left behind you- all that survives is a long and meaningless wait for improbable signs of walking forests.

Roman Polanski - Macbeth (Banquo's ghost)

That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
Oh keep the dog far hence, that's friend to men,
or with his nails he'll dig it up again!
You! hypocrite lecteur! - mon semblable, - mon frère!

(T.S.Eliot, The waste land)

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Of waves and particles

The devastating magnitude 9 earthquake with tsunami that hit the Northeast of Japan, and the unfolding nuclear crisis at the Fukuchima Daiichi power plant, is a human tragedy of immense proportions, and at the same time a powerful reminder of how limited our understanding of nature and our predictive power really is. It was long known that subduction zones can generate the most powerful earthquakes on the planet, but it was mistakenly assumed that only those corresponding to a younger oceanic crust (see the recent article on Nature) could reach the magnitude 9 level. An accurate (or more accurate) modeling of earthquakes determines our capacity to prepare and withstand the possibility of natural disasters, minimizing casualties: the Pacific coast of Northeastern Japan was perhaps the best prepared to face a tsunami (containment walls, escape routes, etc) yet not one with ten meters high waves.

The ongoing Japanese nuclear crisis is arguably the most transparently reported nuclear accident in history, yet how well is the technical information being transmitted to the general public? Is the accident really showing that nuclear reactors are inherently unsafe? There is a factual observation: the Fukushima reactors did not break down under a magnitude 9 earthquake, which is coming near the maximum intensity of earthquakes ever recorded on this planet: the reactor did switch off correctly. All through this crisis, the reactors had not been fissioning (another issue is to make sure that criticality, hence a new chain reaction in the fuel, is not ignited now, for example by the fires and overheating in the spent fuel ponds). It was the tsunami, not the earthquake that caused the most serious problems: while the facility had a tsunami wall, it did not stop a wave of that magnitude, which damaged the cooling system and started the overheating problems. So what does this mean? Are the reactors safe or unsafe? There is a meltdown happening: how bad will that be? In the last few days, there were a few sources of scant but reliable news (World Nuclear News, the International Atomic Energy Agency) and a lot of wild speculation by journalists with contradictory reports and little respect for technical reliability.

Finally, about a week after the earthquake and tsunami event, a very clear and detailed talk by nuclear physicist Benjamin Monreal, delivered at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara, was made available as video with accompanying slides on the web. Why is this reporting so much better than anything that made it to the press? It is not a specialized talk for nuclear physics experts, but a presentation directed at a reasonably science-literate general public. It conveys precisely defined concepts, quantitatively meaningful notions of units of measures and their meaning, valuable and detailed comparisons with other situations of nuclear crisis (Three Mile Island, Chernobyl). Overall, what matters is the sense of conveying, as much as one possibly can in a potentially out of control and rapidly evolving situation, reliable and verifiable quantitatively stated and qualitatively unambiguous information. If one wants to strip it all down to the back bone, this is what science is about. Events like the ones being discussed bring to the forefront more forcefully than ever the sensitive issue of scientific literacy. We live in a world where things like nuclear energy and the functioning of nuclear reactors, plate tectonic and the likelihood of earthquakes, the complicated dynamics of nonlinear waves and tsunamis, as well as many other scientific issues involving medicine, energy, the environment, are or should be part of our daily preoccupations as informed citizens of the world.

The fascist current prime minister of a Southern European country delivered a highly embarrassing televised speech in which, while addressing the current situation in Japan, he revealed that he does not understand the difference between an atom and a cell and gave public display of several ridiculous misunderstandings of basic elementary school science. I wish I could ascribe this gross ignorance of science just to his being a fascist and a complete moron (at least he didn't try to claim that the Japanese earthquake was a communist conspiracy like he claims everything else in the world to be), but I am afraid that, unfortunately, not a few people who would recognize themselves with the political left would also, if pressed, sport an equally cavalier attitude towards scientific literacy. How comes? We may be all, at least those of us who are citizens of democratic or semi-democratic countries, be one day or another called to vote on issues like nuclear energy. Earthquake preparedness requires the investment of public funds: is it acceptable in Southern California to have nuclear reactors made to withstand intact a magnitude 7 earthquake? Because it is a logarithmic scale, the cost of upgrading from magnitude 7 to magnitude 9 escalates accordingly: is it needed? desirable? can one effectively evaluate the risk factor? Answering this question, in the positive or the negative, requires getting some technical knowledge: even that may well not be enough, as in the case of the present Japanese earthquake that defeated the known models of earthquake dynamics in subduction zones, but certainly gross misunderstandings can only make decisions worse.

The risk of criticality and of a chain reaction in spent fuel on fire in a nuclear facility may be faced effectively using the fact that the isotope 10 of the element boron is especially good at absorbing thermal neutrons and can be refined to near pure form out of the initial 20% occurrence in natural boron, and can be mixed, in the form of boric acid, with the reactor water based coolant. This type of intervention may or may not succeed in resolving the problem, depending on how serious the situation is. However, it is clear that the problem will not, by any means, be solved by some postmodernist mumbo-jumbo about different context-dependent truths and ontological relativism, not by invoking divine wrath (two faces of the same irrationalist coin). Like it or not, science is the only effective way humankind has ever had to face the uncertainties of the world and try to make reasonably informed decisions about it.

Let us then look more closely at some of the issues involved in the present crisis: how would a reasonably scientifically literate person go about getting some more specific information on the matters at hand? To define my terms let us say that, by "scientifically literate" I mean someone who would not run screaming at the sight of something that requires some basic calculus to understand. I will argue later on why in the world of today one should aim at this level of understanding of science at least, for a democratically engaged and informed population.

Earthquake and tsunami first: in the wake of the 2006 tsunami, a couple of quality books were published, which survey the present understanding and models of nonlinear waves and tsunami phenomena. Two volumes of this type that I (as a non-expert) am aware of are "Tsunami and nonlinear waves" by Anjan Kundu, and "Physics of tsunamis" by Boris Levin and Mikhail Nosov, the latter coming out of the Russian school of fluid dynamics.

The interested reader who may be willing to take a closer look at this kind of literature, however, will immediately encounter one of the most obvious obstacles in increasing general literacy on scientific topics of wider societal impact: scientific literature ain't cheap! Each of the two volumes mentioned above sells at around $150, used or new. If you are an even more mathematically inclined reader, you may in fact be luckier, and get away with "just" around $60 for "Tsunamis and hurricanes: a mathematical approach" by Ferdinand Cap. You are similarly "lucky" if you decide that you don't really care about the dynamics of anomalous waves and you only want to get a good idea of plate tectonics. In that case you may for instance get, again for around $70 bucks, a book like "Plate tectonics" by Wolfgang Frisch, Martin Meschede, and Ronald Blakey.

I am not suggesting that you should run off to your nearest bookstore or jump on your favorite web browser and online store and get hold of these expensive books if you want to read something about how tsunamis and earthquakes actually happen. Fortunately, most of us have a less expensive alternative to buying science books, which is to walk over to the nearest university library and hope that, if not the exact title you're looking for, they would have something along those lines you can browse and read (though probably not borrow if you don't have a university affiliation). However, how likely is that to happen? How often do people actually go and look for technical literature at a university library when they want to know more about some piece of news involving natural phenomena? I can only guess, not having any data or statistics available, but I am doubtful that this would be a frequent occurrence.

What I am trying to argue here is that the out-of-control prices of technical and scientific literature and the monopoly that a few publishing houses have on the market of specialized scientific literature is one of the factors that contribute to hinder wider dissemination of science. Given the generally prohibitive prices of good scientific literature, all people are left with is the cheaper alternative of popular science, which is generally a low quality product, full of inaccuracies if not outright misconceptions. Part of the unfulfilled dreams of socialists and communist visions of the future of humankind was to achieve a widespread high level of scientific literacy all over the population (see Yefremov's "Andromeda" for a powerful literary representation of that dream in a science-fictional context). This ideal at least brought about the existence, in those days in the Eastern European block, of a broad range of easily accessible, low cost, high-quality scientific publications, at all levels of specialization. The trickling of many of those books across the Iron Curtain made it possible for many of us who grew up in Western Europe to achieve a degree of scientific literacy that would have otherwise remained inaccessible. If any of the books mentioned above would cost between 5 and 15 dollars instead of costing between 60 and 150, it would be reasonable to imagine that a reasonably scientifically literate person, who's had a minimum amount of calculus level education in science, may be willing to invest the time and mental energy needed to read at least the more accessible parts of a real scientific book on a topic close to immediate real-world events. Subsidizing the cost of scientific publishing would perhaps be one of the best investments towards increasing the rate of scientific literacy.

Let me comment briefly on the "calculus level" remark I made above. The capacity to understand what a derivative, an integral, or a differential equation mean is a fundamental and basic skill that allows people to make sense of systems evolving in time, rate of change, averages, conservation properties: all concept that are absolutely necessary in order to make any kind of quantitative prediction about the future behavior of a simple or complex system on the basis of data available at a given time. This is three hundred year old science, which was once the frontier of human understanding (at the time of Newton and Leibniz) but is now so well understood that it can be routinely taught to any high school kid. So it is not an unreasonable pretense to expect that the scientific literacy level of a well informed population of a democratic country should start out from what one may call the "calculus level" and grow from there towards more advanced topics, cultivating the capacity of people to routinely access and read scientific text (real ones, not crappy popularization!). People should not be puzzled at why one should put water in a nuclear reactor or on what boron is and what it has to do with it; they need not wonder on whether the lunar perigee represents a danger, or on what is or is not an issue worthy of attention. Scientific information is available of course: there is now plenty of information online which is not restricted to subscribers: scientific journals are sadly under control of the same publishing monopolies that impose on them far more outrageous prices than for books, but freely available preprints abound and more and more lectures by scientists are freely available as videos, as in the case of the beautiful lecture by Benjamin Monreal on the Fukushima reactor mentioned above. The problem with this type of online information is that it is often difficult for the non-specialized public to be able to locate and pick up the real scientific information in the middle of the veritable deluge of crap and pseudoscience of which the web is routinely inundated. This calls for some intervention on the side of scientists, in finding ways of making repositories of reliable scientific information online clearly visible and accessible to internet users that do not naturally gravitate around the academic sources of information. How to create "pointers" that can effectively guide people towards serious science resources is an important issue, probably one of the most pressing in the current social implications of science and science literacy.