Update on the Universe; or, Where we “canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth”

Box seat holders at the Toads know that periodically we like to drop in on the physicists to see how the universe is progressing. Though it may be some 14 billion years old, fans will be happy to know that the universe is still in its early innings. Time for a hot dog and a bottle of that dark matter earthlings call beer.

But why can’t we enjoy the universe without the polemic diatribes of the scientists who must wear their atheist merit badges on their sleeves? In the most recent example, Lawrence Krauss’s A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing, Richard Dawkins comes out of the bullpen to write the afterword, and we find ourselves trying to stay afloat in some deep, dark matter, but it’s not beer.

“Over the course of the history of our galaxy,” Krauss writes, “about 200 million stars have exploded. These myriad stars sacrificed themselves, if you wish, so that one day you could be born. I suppose that qualifies them as much as anything else for the role of saviors.” But is Jesus about being born, or about the existential possibility of being reborn?* To get this, one must imagine a universe without shame. It doesn’t matter where you come from, who your parents were, the color of your collar. The universe does not come into play. Krauss has hit a foul ball.

Why the scientists can’t stick to scientific writing is one of the mysteries of the universe that neither Krauss nor Dawkins unravel. Consider, for example, Dawkins’s afterward. After a couple hundred pages of Krauss blowing winds and cracking cheeks in which he attempts to explain that King Lear was wrong when he said “nothing will come of nothing,” we find that indeed nothing has come of nothing, but that it may amount to the same thing as something coming from nothing, or the other way around. In any case, as early as 14 billion years ago, which is to say, in his preface, Krauss has already admitted, “we simply don’t know” and probably never will. As it turns out, the universe is really about funding.

We’ve never doubted, here at the Toads, that something can come from nothing (witness the 1969 Mets); neither have we doubted the reverse, that nothing can come from something. We’re going back to casting out 9’s, dividing the universe into 9 inning segments.

“We may not understand quantum theory,” Dawkins writes in his afterward, but then says, parenthetically and inexplicably religiously, “[heaven knows, I don’t] but a theory that predicts the world to ten decimal places cannot in any straightforward sense be wrong. Theology not only lacks decimal places: it lacks even the smallest hint of connection with the real world.” Yes, but why “heaven knows”? Is Dawkins kidding here? Or is this a slip of the atheist pen? And what about those ten decimal places? In a universe as old and big as Krauss has described, ten decimal places hardly seems significant at all. The assumptions of the argument lose their scientific credibility the moment its purpose is revealed to be conversion: it’s an argument of conversion, and it’s trying and tiring.

Note: For information about the universe, the Toads still recommends Robert B. Laughlin’s A Different Universe.

*“Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit” (John 3:7-8, KJV).


David Albert’s New York Times book review of Krauss’s A Universe from Nothing.

Sea Monsters in A. C. Grayling’s Secular Bible; or, Humanity’s Greatest Endeavor

Progress Report: Our Disappearing World

The Elite and the Effete: From Access to Egress

When did literature become an elitist game? When we started writing? Literature both reflects and influences culture, society, and the individual, but there are many things that reflect our values (what we want; not to be confused with what’s good for us) and influence our thought and action (the automobile; lawns; college), but not everything that reflects and influences our lives is literature. There appears to be an argument afoot, to wit: “I should state up front that I am not a fan of programme fiction. Basically, I feel about it as towards new fiction from a developing nation with no literary tradition: I recognise that it has anthropological interest, and is compelling to those whose experience it describes, but I probably wouldn’t read it for fun.” This from Elif Batuman’s review of Mark McGurl’s The Programme Era, “Get a Real Degree.”

All cultures experience literature, but only an elitist can afford to read purely for fun. What Elif is talking about when she says “literary tradition” is the tradition of literary criticism, which is a kind of self-consciousness about one’s literature. Part of Elif’s complaint is that the programs (code for the MFA writing programs) lack literary tradition and subscribe to an artificial fabrication called creative writing. But as Eliot said in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” “It [tradition] cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour.” One gets the feeling that Elif does not consider “creative writing” to be literature, and it may not be, in the same sense that painting by numbers is not art. D. G. Myers seems to agree. Myers values writers not on but in location. Using this rubric, Bukowski, who filled the Los Angeles Basin with alcohol, makes the grade, as would Flannery O’Connor, who filled the South with grace, and Joyce, who filled Dublin with Dubliners, giving them a chance to talk to one another unencumbered by the Church’s program. Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown Trilogy is another example rooted in place. But people move, and move on.

If, as Buckminster Fuller explained, specialization leads to extinction, where does literary elitism lead? Literature from the “programmes” sounds a little like the physicists’ string theories, which Robert B. Laughlin unraveled for us some time ago: criticizing string theory in his book A Different Universe, Laughlin says “A measurement that cannot be done accurately, or that cannot be reproduced even if it is accurate, can never be divorced from politics and must therefore generate mythologies” (p. 215). One problem, as described by Batuman, has to do with the program reverence for what it calls craft. Plumbing is a craft; writing is something else.

Again we find funding the antagonist: “…people on the West Coast work,” Kenneth Rexroth said. “Ginsberg when he came out here, as he said in interviews, was working as a market researcher, which is just a shit job. It’s like being a floorwalker in a dime store. I said, ‘Why don’t you work? How much are you making? Forty-five dollars? You can’t live on forty-five dollars in San Francisco. That’s not money. Why don’t you go to work, get a job?’ Ginsberg said, ‘What do you mean?’ And I said, ‘Ship out…’ You come back with more bread than you know what to do with!’ In the East people don’t think like that” (Meltzer, 1971, p. 12*).

Elif’s London Review of Books review would still be going out with the tide were it not for McGurl’s tardy response in the May 11th Los Angeles Review of Books, “The MFA Octopus: Four Questions About Creative Writing.” But what is elite? The truly elite do not go in for literature; they go where the money is, finance, or health care, or both, which is insurance, and surely if we can agree on anything it’s that there’s no money in literature. The elite that do go in for literature we might call the mal-elite, the black sheep of the elite, for as Jerzy Kosinski said, “Reading novels—serious novels, anyhow—is an experience limited to a very small percentage of the so-called enlightened public. Increasingly, it’s going to be a pursuit for those who seek unusual experiences, moral fetishists perhaps, people of heightened imagination, the troubled pursuers of the ambiguous self” (Kosinski, Paris Review Interview, 1972).

Kosinski was no elitist, nor is Elif’s example of a writer she values, Dave Eggers. His prose is characterized by practical matters; his publication efforts (The Believer, which does not publish fiction, but which has been publishing poetry of late; 826 Valencia) take the word to the street, Samizdat-style. William T. Vollman might be an even better example of the non-elitist, non-programmed writer, engaged in some cross-fertilization of fiction and non-fiction, a new prose for a new time. For the University cannot grant access to literature; it can only grant access to degrees. And the egress of disappearing readers from literature suggests that we must start to look for our literature in unexpected places.


Apr 29, 2013: Seth Abramson at HuffPost: “Contemporary Poetry Reviews.” Intro. continues “Program” discussion.

May 18: Laura Miller simplifies and suggests much ado about nothing. August 22: Daniel Green reviews The Program Era, including an interesting aside: “…another book considering those writers who resisted the migration of literature and the literary vocation into the academy would be an interesting project.” Yes.

15 Nov 2012: Fredric Jameson reviews The Programme Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing by Mark McGurl (Harvard, 466 pp, £14.95, November [2012], ISBN 978 0 674 06209 2) in LRB (subscribe).

Now is the Science of our Discontent: E. O. Wilson and the Sacrifice of Science

Why do humans sacrifice for one another, sometimes even giving their lives so that others may go on living? We are an exceptionally selfish species, if measured by our propensity to hoard, to covet power and control, to manipulate and coerce. Scientists appear to be part of the species. Nature published last August a new paper by E. O. Wilson, with Marin Nowak and Corina Tarnita, all of Harvard (Wilson, now 81), but we wonder what’s become of the peer review process when after publication 137 scientists see fit to call Wilson a heretic, signing a letter chastising Nature for publishing his argument. Of course there’s disagreement – no disagreement, no argument; no argument, no need to publish results. One would think the scientist would be the first to understand this. So what’s going on here?

Borrowing from the medical peer review scandal, about which we posted last October: In the Atlantic’s “Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science,” David H. Freedman (November, 2010) said, “Though scientists and science journalists are constantly talking up the value of the peer-review process, researchers admit among themselves that biased, erroneous, and even blatantly fraudulent studies easily slip through it.” The motive appears to be funding. If you are a scholar at work on research on kin selection, it’s possible that Wilson’s breakaway article renders your work null and void. Yet most disturbing is the suggestion that many of the scientists signing the letter of discontent have not even read Wilson’s paper, or, if they have, have not studied the mathematics addendum, or if they have, have not understood the math. A Boston Globe interview (April 17, 2011) with Wilson, interestingly titled “Where does good come from?,” discusses the letter of discontent and his revised theory. According to the Globe, Richard Dawkins said, “It’s almost universally regarded as a disgrace that Nature published it.” That’s not a rebuttal; it’s an insult. Wired Science’s Brandon Keim summarized the support that does exist as well as opposing viewpoints: See “E. O. Wilson Proposes New Theory of Social Evolution.”

The crux of the matter was usefully stated by Robert B. Laughlin in A Different Universe (2005): “The pig-headed response of the science establishment to the emergent principles potentially present in life is, of course, a glaring symptom of its addiction to reductionist beliefs – happily abetted by the pharmaceutical industry, which greatly appreciates having minutiae relevant to its business worked out at taxpayer expense” (173). Laughlin defines emergence this way: “Emergence means complex organizational structure growing out of simple rules. Emergence means stable inevitability in the way certain things are. Emergence means unpredictability, in the sense of small events causing great and qualitative changes in larger ones. Emergence means the fundamental impossibility of control. Emergence is a law of nature to which humans are subservient” (200-201). Further, Laughlin explains, perhaps, both the medical research scandal and the dissing by so many scientists of Wilson’s paper: “A measurement that cannot be done accurately, or that cannot be reproduced even if it is accurate, can never be divorced from politics and must therefore generate mythologies” (215). What Laughlin is talking about is science that shifts in focus from explaining things based on “the behavior of parts to the behavior of the collective” (208). And that is precisely the direction taken by Wilson’s new paper.

The threat of Wilson’s change in focus is to the dominance of the individual, the single gene as well as the single person. When humans come together, the resulting behavior of the group is something different from the behavior of each individual within the group. The same may be true of genes. This is what Dawkins can’t tolerate, for the focus changes from competition, which his work is bound to, to cooperation, which is probably an emergent phenomenon. If we are to have the truth, it appears that someone in the scientific community is going to have to make a sacrifice. Perhaps E. O. Wilson already has.

Sea Monsters in A. C. Grayling’s Secular Bible; or, Humanity’s Greatest Endeavor

The receding shorelines of the Sea of Faith betrayed not a spiritual drought but a thirst for knowledge when Matthew Arnold stood on the cliffs of Dover and declared his desperate love for his girl amid humanity’s confusing mission, for the beautiful sea, the moon coming to pieces on its surface, the calm English evening wanting amour, was full of sea monsters. It’s an easy poem to parody, Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” Anthony Hecht certainly thought so, when, about a hundred years later, he refashioned it “The Dover Bitch,” thinking of the lot of Arnold’s girl, who, lured by the promise of a weekend tryst at the beach, is forced to listen to Arnold’s God’s not in his heaven, all’s wrong with the world speech. Not much has changed since Arnold’s moonlit vision of sadness. The Sea, though not yet empty, is still losing water to the thirsty scientists, whose promises, in turn, of certitude, progress, or peace, seem as empty as Arnold’s unfurling religious girdle.

If there is no spirit, then nothing is spiritual. The brain is simply a piece of meat, as Jonah Lehrer keeps repeating, and the universe is merely a long fly ball of exploding rock off the bat of a big bang Louisville Slugger. But the nature of the slugger remains unknown, and there’s reason to view with skepticism Dawkins’s and his disciples’ descents. The latest to echo Arnold’s theme appears to be A. C. Grayling, who has written a secular bible, in which he creates a collage from the world canon. Here’s a sample, from Grayling’s “Genesis”: “Thus nature by unseen bodies and forces works; thus the elements and seeds of nature lie far beneath the ordinary gaze of eyes, Needing instead the mind’s gaze, to penetrate and understand” (p. 5). But doesn’t this carry a whiff of dualism, from which the spirit was born? And does he mean “the ordinary gaze of eyes,” or the gaze of ordinary eyes? For just as the Church argues that we need the clergy to explain what we in our ordinary (not to mention fallen) state can’t understand, Grayling posits the scientist as the new high priest who will explain what we in our ordinary intelligence have no way of seeing or understanding: “It is nothing less than science, mankind’s greatest endeavour, greatest achievements, and greatest promise” (p. 11). In any case, Grayling’s secular bible hardly seems an improvement over the sacred Bible. Grayling suggests that his purpose is to get us to think independently, but that’s not as clear as that he wants us to think like him. Anyway, it would seem that much of the writing of the world canon writers he references (Dryden and Milton, for example) would never had been written were it not for the Bible. There are other seeming contradictions in Grayling’s purported purpose.

Grayling comments, in an interview with Matthew Adams, in The New Humanist, “If the sum total of positivity, in some way, outweighed the negativity, in that little moment in one corner of the universe, which was otherwise just a bland, neutral state, then the whole history of the universe is made good by it. But if the negativity outweighed the positivity, then the whole history of the universe is tainted by it. And for that reason, we have a universal responsibility to promote the good.” This sounds strangely religious, and thus contradictory, for it’s religious sentiment Grayling wants to eradicate. It also sounds like some sort of cosmic baseball game. And what is the mind that he refers to? Would that be Lehrer’s piece of meat? Grayling seems to continue the mind-body split, which is what gives rise to ideas of the spirit to begin with. And what is the universe, and why should we feel responsible to its indifference? And does the universe have a history? These seem metaphors and anthropomorphisms, inaccurate and irrelevant. It’s simply not clear why our promoting the good would make any difference in or to the universe. To better understand the universe, we could read again Garrett Lisi’s “An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything,” except that the physics is surely beyond the ability of ordinary eyes. And we are again reminded of Robert B. Laughlin’s A Different Universe, which opens and ends on a theme suggested by Sir Arthur Eddington: “Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.” Grayling, in his introduction, which he calls an Epistle, reaches back to the ancient Greeks when he says that “…every action and pursuit, aims at some good….” But it’s not so easy knowing what’s good. What we value is simply what we want, and what we want is not always what’s good for us. In the end, Grayling’s purpose seems naïve, and worse, for he seems to trap much of the independent thinking in the world canon in a cage with a single purpose, and that can’t be good.

Is the universe free? “They’ll never ever reach the moon,” Leonard Cohen sang, “at least not the one we’re after.” Just so, the physicists attempt to explain the universe in a language most of us will never understand. But then what language are we to use to understand the moon we are after, or the ocean in which we wish to live? The neuroscientists exploring the brain are like the physicists exploring the universe. As Vonnegut illustrated in his short novel Cat’s Cradle, no cat, lots of string. There’s nothing more difficult than creating something from nothing. Science is not, as Grayling would have us believe, “mankind’s greatest endeavour.” Humanity’s greatest endeavor, to return to Mathew Arnold, is love.

A Different Brain: Reinventing Neuroscience from the Bottom Down

We saw Robert B. Laughlin lecture in Portland in 2005. It was Eric’s idea. He was taking a high school physics class, and there was a free ticket and extra credit in the wings, so we tagged along, always interested in what the physicists are up to.

The hall was packed. On the stage was a podium and an overhead projector. We had expected high tech Excel files pasted into a slick PowerPoint. Instead, we got a speaker and cartoon drawings on the overhead. And it was brilliant (in the Roddy Doyle sense of the word). Laughlin was funny, accessible, engaging (a Q&A followed the lecture), humble, generous, challenging. Then the Nobel prize winning physicist sat in the lobby selling and signing his book: A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down.

Our brain, an old dog versed in verse, struggled a bit in parts of the lecture, wanted to chase a Frisbee in the park, get out and smell some dirt, so we looked forward to sharing the book with Eric and learning more about the universe. Eric had Laughlin sign the book; his signature looks like a nebula.

What can science tell us about life? In his preface to the book, Laughlin says, “Seeing our understanding of nature as a mathematical construction has fundamentally different implications from seeing it as an empirical synthesis. One view identifies us as masters of the universe; the other identifies the universe as the master of us…At its core the matter is not scientific at all but concerns one’s sense of self and place in the world.” One of these views he explains with a reference to John Horgan’s The End of Science, “in which he [Horgan] argues that all fundamental things are now known and there is nothing left for us to do but fill in details.”

That is the view of the brain taken by some of today’s neuroscientists, a view that has the seemingly infallible protection of the scientific method. Yet Laughlin moves on to describe a different view, “that all physical law we know about has collective origins, not just some of it. In other words, the distinction between fundamental laws and the laws descending from them is a myth, as is the idea of mastery of the universe through mathematics alone.” This is an untamed elephant in the science lab. And we’re only in the preface.

Emergence is Laughlin’s theme: “…human behavior resembles nature because it is part of nature and ruled by the same laws as everything else…we resemble primitive things because we are made of them – not because we have humanized them or controlled them with our minds. The parallels between organization of a life and organization of electrons are not an accident or a delusion, but physics” (201).

Laughlin likes quotes; they help him move his conversation forward. This one opens his book: “Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine” (Sir Arthur Eddington). This one opens the last chapter of the book: “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects” (R. A. Heinlein).

Juxtaposition to synthesize varying points of view casts things in new light. In the chapter “Picnic Table in the Sun,” Laughlin, describing some physicists’ conversation, says, “At any rate, by noon nobody’s brain would hold any more…,” and they move off to an outdoor lunch.

We find the physicists’ full brains hopeful; it suggests the need to digest, sleep, and let go – a need we all feel, regardless of the relative size of our brain. Here in this particular spot in the universe it’s morning, and we are thinking of some scrambled eggs, toast, and coffee. Then we’ll take a walk in the sun, and if we’re lucky, our brain will forget about itself, becoming just another part of us, no more, no less, another part of the universe.

Theory of nothing, something, and everything in between

Then we saw Wallace-Wells’s “Surfing the Universe,” in the July 21 issue, and we quickly skipped to this Annals of Science piece; for since seeing the Nobel Prize winning physicist Robert B. Laughlin lecture locally, our old curiosity to know if the physicists will ever solve their “Theory of Everything” has been expanding. 

There’s apparently enough string theory going around that if the physicists studying it were Christo they could wrap the universe. We like Lisi’s new idea for a Theory of Everything because while it exposes string theory for the cat’s cradle it is, it also makes use of something called E8, at once suggesting an error on a guitar chart (he must mean E7, or E9 – what’s an E8 shaped like?), and our old drill sergeant at Fort Bliss (an E8), Fall 1969, who also toyed around with a theory of everything.

We had our own theory of everything nearly completed, but it contained no math, actuarially speaking, though it was based on the number system we developed to illuminate the guitar fretboard. Like many of our great ideas, it was written on one of our Joe Mitchell note sheets, got left in a back pocket of a pair of jeans, and went out with the wash.

Criticizing string theory in his book A Different Universe, Laughlin says “A measurement that cannot be done accurately, or that cannot be reproduced even if it is accurate, can never be divorced from politics and must therefore generate mythologies” (p. 215). In lecture, Laughlin was a card. Expecting a mega-PowerPoint, instead we got cartoons from an overhead. “Just look around you…Even this room is teeming with things we do not understand” (p. 218).

Anyone lucky enough to have surfed, that is, surfed in the water, salt water, in real waves, may not understand physics, but certainly comprehends that, as Laughlin says, “there is much, much more yet to come” (p. 218).