Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Man Who Could Fly: A Book Review

Tycho's Star: SNR 1572
In 1572, a new star appeared in the heavens, brighter than the planet Venus, then slowly disappeared over a period of 18 months. The new star (stella nova) was closely observed and measured by Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe who christened the star, "new and never before seen in the life or memory of anyone". Brahe's discovery challenged the reigning Aristotelian dogma of the incorruptibility of the heavens. We know now that this event was not a "new star" but an old star ending its stellar career with a colossal explosion, which today's astronomers call a "supernova". The hot debris from this explosion is named Supernova Remnant 1572 (visible now only through powerful telescopes) or "Tycho's Star" for short.

Kepler's Star: SNR 1604
Thirty-two years later, a second stella nova appeared in the heavens and was dutifully described by Tycho's successor Johannes Kepler. This new star of 1604 was also a supernova explosion and is now called "Kepler's Star" or Supernova Remnant 1604. Although many supernovas have since been observed telescopically in other galaxies, Kepler's Star was the last local supernova visible with the naked eye.

Almost coincident with these revolutionary celestial explosions was the birth of a man whose explosive behavior challenges modern science at its core. Joseph Desa, born in 1603, in the small town of Copertino, located in the heel of Italy's boot, was a completely unlikely scientific revolutionary. Clumsy, absent-minded, unfit for the simplest profession because of his tendency to fall into prolonged reverie, bedridden as a young boy for 6 years, Joseph earned the nickname Boccaperta (Gapingmouth) for his stupid-looking countenance. He first attempted to enter a monastery, but was dismissed after eight months for incompetence in the kitchen. Through the help of a influential uncle he was accepted into the Conventual Order of the Franciscans in the nearby town of Grotella where he was given the task of caring for the mule.

As a Conventual friar Joseph became a candidate for the priesthood. And, through a set of seemingly miraculous circumstances, he actually passed his exams and was ordained a Catholic priest at the age of 25.

And then his troubles began. The new priest could levitate.

Before his ordination, Joseph's frequent reveries (or ecstasies) might be tolerated but now these trances were often accompanied (especially while saying Mass) by literal flights into the air, in seeming violation of (today's) laws of physics. Joseph's miraculous flights occurred over a period of 35 years till his death in 1663 at the age of sixty, and were witnessed by hundreds and perhaps thousand of people.

Johannes Kepler by Gabriel Herrera; St Joseph of Copertino by Michael Grosso

Recently writer, painter and scholarly researcher Michael Grosso arranged for a translation into English of an Italian biography of Joseph by Domenico Bernini written in 1722, only sixty years after Joseph's death and forty-five years before he was canonized as a Catholic Saint. Grosso used Bernini's work and many more recent scholarly accounts of Joseph's deeds (including documents from the Vatican archives) to produce his own analysis of this 17th-century gravity-defying Franciscan monk. 
Michael Grosso and The Man Who Could Fly
In The Man Who Could Fly, Grosso tells Joseph's story in brief and then again in more detail, analyzing Joseph's alleged levitations from a number of angles including scientific, psychological and religious perspectives and even considering Joseph as a performance artist in the context of sacred theater. In addition to telling a compelling tale of the unusual life of an unlikely miracle-worker, Grosso does the reader a favor by examining Joseph's behavior from a variety of approaches that a merely biographical approach might ignore.

For instance, from the historical viewpoint, levitations connected with religious ecstasy have been documented for at least 200 Catholic saints, about equally divided by gender. For comparison, only five naked-eye supernovas have been observed in the last 1000 years. Until recently, evidence for levitation and for "new stars" was of the same nature -- personal testimony concerning a rare and short-lived event. Today, with telescopes and photography, we can make lasting records of supernovas. Levitating saints are allegedly still around. It would be interesting to see if this book inspires scientific recording of ecstatic flight by a monk or nun with a digital video camera.

Ironically, the life of Joseph, the gravity defier, coincided in part with the life of Galileo, who was the first to work out the mathematics of the motions of falling bodies. Both men were several times examined by the Italian Inquisition under the same Pope (Urban VIII) and both received essentially the same punishment -- enforced isolation from the public -- house arrest in the case of Galileo and confinement to remote and inaccessible monasteries in the case of Joseph.

In Joseph's case the inquisitors did not doubt the numerous reports of his levitation, but were concerned that his powers might be of demonic origin, or that, through his wonder working, he might turn into a popular figure (such as Martin Luther) who could challenge the authority of the Catholic Church. Anticipating a Luther or a demon, the inquisitors in Naples were totally disarmed by the unfeigned humility and clumsy helplessness of  Padre Giuseppe Gapingmouth. Neither a demon nor a demagogue, what to do with this guy who could fly?

Naples sent him to Rome for a second inquisition where he levitated in the presence of Pope Urban VIII. The Pope's decision was to "get him out of town". The Pope moved Joseph from Grotella (in Italy's heel) where he was drawing huge crowds of miracle seekers (he also was gaining a reputation as a healer) to Assisi (whose patron saint is St Francis) almost 500 miles to the north. As a Franciscan monk, Joseph welcomed the chance to be near the relics of St Francis. He was employed there as a gardener's assistant and kept away from the public -- a kind of monastic house arrest. 

Coincident with Joseph's confinement, Galileo was under house arrest in Florence, less than 100 miles from Assisi. One can only speculate how Galileo might have reacted to the sight of a monk that could fly. Eppur si muove (and yet it moves) indeed.

In searching for a context that might explain Joseph's flights, Grosso places them in the category of unusual mind-matter interactions, which range from familiar (but not yet understood) acts such as your own mind lifting an apple with your hand, to astonishing sports performances, to table tipping, poltergeists and mental influences on quantum random-number generators (Schmidt machines). He also cites cases of mediums such as the Scotsman D. D. Home and Icelandic medium Indridi Indridason, who went into trance and levitated, sometimes carrying others up with them (as did Joseph). Grosso speculates that certain states of mind can give rise to physical forces as yet unrecognized by science. Grosso criticizes scientists who dismiss out of hand the phenomena of levitating saints, not only for their unjustified dogmatism but mainly because their "stolid incuriosity" is so unworthy of a true scientist.

Just as Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler carefully documented their "new stars" without having the slightest idea what was really happening in the sky, so Michael Grosso carefully examines and presents the evidence for Joseph's levitations (including the processi, the records of Joseph's inquisitions which are still on file at the Vatican). This is a scholarly and richly informative book on a phenomenon deemed by many to be "impossible". This impact of this carefully written book is enhanced by multiple readings. I've read it three times. And who is to say, perhaps Grosso's book might inspire some young and imaginative reader to discover the secret of "the man who could fly".

On the other hand, the solution to the mystery of the Franciscan frequent flyer might not be possible using only what we know today. 

The nature of Kepler's new star, for instance, was solved only recently, and needed new knowledge for its understanding.  At the end of the 19th century, Lord Kelvin calculated that the Sun was no more than 25 million years old, which was "impossible" because the Earth itself was known to be much older than that. The source of the Sun's energy was finally explained only after the discovery of two new forces -- the strong and the weak nuclear interactions. Once scientists could explain the Sun, it was only a matter of time before they were able also to explain supernovas, as a logical consequence of the same two new short-range nuclear forces.

It may not be too farfetched to hope, in analogy with how we managed to understand the Sun, that when scientists can confidently explain the origin of ordinary consciousness (whether via a new force or some more sophisticated twist), then the path will be open to explaining the outlandish behavior of religious super stars such as St Joseph of Copertino, the patron saint of aviators, astronauts and exam takers. Thank you. Michael Grosso, for telling so well the story of this truly marvelous man.

Joseph of Copertino from Thuen Karelse's Field Guide to Flying Saints

Friday, March 3, 2017


Jim Rintoul, live at the Boulder Creek Bistro 12/04/1996
One of the most inventive poets
of Boulder Creek's Middle Bistroscene Era
(when giants walked the earth)
was Jim Rintoul
captured below on video
(Dec 4, 1996) by Allan and Sun Lundell.

I wonder 

how many among us 
poets and writers have ever
somewhere in the recesses of our minds
felt that we had the power with our words
to launch something so powerful
into the heart of a culture
that it would just rip it apart
and something beautiful and new
would emerge?

I know that this fantasy
animates much of my life.

That's where this comes from:


(upon slaying unavoidably
a few pillars of conventional wisdom.)

Had you ever thought about
how hard it had become to do
anything really holy anymore?

The holy event
demands a rawness,
a stripped situation,
the down comforters
of modern convention
had smothered
the sacred impulse
in its own dank heat.

The valley of the shadow of death
had been buried
under asphalt intersections
and fertilized lawns.

Just think about
how hard it had become
to get really naked anymore.

The clothes of common understanding
clung to bare skin
like a hot wet fog
like a thick exhalation.

Bones packed in such fat,
like flies in amber,
can't be easily rattled
to stir the demon guides
and spirit helpers.

There was just no way around it, Judge --
I had to destroy that culture to save it.


Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Valentine's Day 2017

Tub once full of Ahlgren wine

Love to my lovers
To my friends and my haters.
Love to my teachers
Priests, warriors, lactators.

Love to the Beautiful Mystery
That keeps this comical opera hot.
Love to the music, the costumes, the art
Much love to you and your role in the plot.
If One Mind hides
Beneath all this
Then give Big Mind
A hearty kiss!
Heart-shaped stardust Valentine

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Blarney in Concert

Von Karman Vortex Street


When a fluid such as air or water flows past a small obstruction, the flow oscillates up and down at a particular frequency, each deflection forming a circular vortex in the fluid. This chain of alternating vortices is called a Von Karman vortex street after Theodore von Karman, the Hungarian-born physicist who first characterized this particularly beautiful and common natural phenomenon which takes place, for instance, when water waves move past an island or air moves across an airplane wing. The oscillation of air as it moves past a small obstruction also forms the basis of certain wind instruments such as the flute and the whistle.

Nick producing Van Karman streets using a black aluminum "Guinness" whistle
By attaching a resonant tube to the fluid obstruction and manipulating its length, the frequency of the von Karman street can be coaxed into the audible range and a certain sort of music produced which some find enjoyable. This music can be experienced solo but is considerably enhanced by the presence of other instruments producing sound by other physical means.

On Sunday, Feb 19,  the Santa Cruz Art League (located at 526 Broadway) is hosting a concert (5 to 7 PM) of Irish music by the band Blarney featuring two vortex street musicians, Kim Fulton-Bennett on the Irish wooden flute and Nick Herbert on the Irish penny whistle. Their von-Karman-based melodies will be augmented by Matt Johnson on banjo and gittern and August O'Connor on bodhran (Irish frame drum) and guitar. Wine and snacks served at intermission and an open gallery featuring various imaginative representations of the human body (The Figure Contemporary) will add to your enjoyment. Details available at the Santa Cruz Art League website. More about Blarney here.

Blarney on Broadway: Matt, August, Kim and Nick

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Nick at 80

Nick at 70


Slovak-Ukrainian immigrant ancestors
Appalachian coal-mines, Lake Erie steel mills,
Thirteenth-century seminary-schooled
By Latin-savvy Catholic priests

LSD at 27 in East Palo Alto:
Too much reality
All in one shot!
Freaking Christ Lord Jesus,
Please make it stop!

Stanford physics PhD
Silicon Valley magnetic ink-jet play
Esalen Institute Bell's theorem sage
Physics-saving hippie
Sequoia forest tantric bard

Thanks to father, brother, comrade, son
Thanks to mother, sister, lover, chum

Thanks to each of you
Who have touched my body
Who have aroused my mind
Who have inflamed my spirit

Even though it did not turn out
As I had hoped
Even though it did not turn out
As I had imagined
Thanks to each of you
For surprising me

Thank you for my miracle birth
Into this complex mysterious life
And next, before I forget:
Thank you in advance
For my upcoming death.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Hymn to Her

Jose Munoz's mystical Mayan mural

O much-married, meat-is-murder,
Menopausal mamma from Missoula, Montana
I'm M-mailing you monthly
Monstrous mounds of Maui moonlight.

O planet-perambulating pinup,
Pantheistic, persnickety Philadelphia PhD
I'm postmarking and P-mailing you
A pack of Pope-blessed purple panties
Playfully empowered 

To grant your every pelvic wish.

O sassy Seattle sex scientist from Stanford
I sent you
specifically in Saturday's S-mail
Sixty sextillion soy-soaked 

Nobel-Prize spermatozoa
For your utopian breeding experiments
Or Sunday's spaghetti sauce:
Your choice, sister.

O A-cupped ace cook,
Angel-lipped Atherton acid head
I A-mail you annually
An ark of apples from Eve's garden
That you might discover thru your tongue
What forbidden knowledge really tastes like.

O thigh-ticklish, tender-hearted,
Trance-dance teacher from Taos, New Mexico
I teasingly T-mailed you this Tuesday eve
Twenty-three tubes 

Of theological transmission fluid:
That's hot Zeus juice, toots, 

And slippery goddess elixir too.
When spiritual overhaul time comes round
You'll be twice-born and thankful 

You tapped my titanic T-mail tubes.

O brainy, brown-eyed,
Buddhist bondage whore from Berkeley
I belatedly B-mail you
The Blessed Virgin Mary, the
Bethlehem Babe
The Holy Baptism, Benediction

The Bread, the Body and the Blood.
All the good parts from my Catholic boyhood
O brave and sacred prostitute,
I B-mail to you.
O luminous, lascivious, lactating Leo 

From Normal, Illinois
I lavishly L-mail you
Love in every form I can think of
Love in every form I can get away with
Love in every form that exists.

I use audio, video, radio, rodeo
Dream wave and astral tattoo
Etheric vibration, deep space oscillation
To make some impression on you.

Honey, I got rope burns on my cranium
Spine fused by astral arcs
Calluses on my testicles
And stretch marks round my heart

No regrets, dear, I learned plenty
Tho I didn't find the Grail
But one thing I hafta ask ya, love:
"When ya gonna answer your mail?"

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Gilliam Does Quantum Reality: Part Two

Harold Gilliam at Baker Beach, San Francisco
Harold Gilliam died last month (Dec 2016) at age 98. He was an eloquent writer on environmental issues and a popular columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Intending perhaps to explore the inner environment of the physical world, Gilliam attended a weekend workshop at Esalen Institute in the summer of 1985 given by myself and my friend and physics colleague Heinz Pagels, To commemorate Gilliam's death and the death of Pagels who died a few years later, I am reprinting a few weeks apart the two Sunday Chronicle columns that Gilliam wrote about his experience with us in Big Sur. Part One is here. Fasten your seat belts for "Gilliam Does Quantum Reality: Part Two"

Harold Gilliam, SF Chronicle Aug 25, 1985

"To be or not to be." is not the question. It is the answer.
                --- Fred Alan Wolf

Bell's Theorem is the most profound discovery of science.
                --- Physicist Henry Stapp

Esalen Institute, on a verdant shelf of the Big Sur coast, far from the frenetic agglomerations of the Bay Area and Southern California, is an idyllic place for leisurely contemplation, for gazing out to sea and looking for clues as to what the world is all about and what your own place in it might be.

And that is what 17 people from various points of the compass were doing there on a recent weekend in a workshop on Quantum Reality as we noted here last Sunday.

We peered (metaphorically) into the microscopic world of the quanta, where atoms and subatomic particles perform their weird unearthly dances that physicists are only beginning to understand.

Consider Bell's Theorem, for example, which has revolutionized our view of the world, at least in the eyes of some quantum physicists.

As explained to us by physicist Nick Herbert, author of Quantum Reality: Beyond the New Physics, Bell's Theorem, very much simplified, states that, if you shoot twin particles in opposite directions, and then if you change the spin or polarity of one of the particles, the other must change in the same way at the same instant, whether it's across the lab or across the galaxy.

Since the change in the two particles occurs simultaneously, this action seems to violate Einstein's dictum that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light -- 186,000 miles per second. How does the second particle 'know' immediately that the first particle has been changed, unless some superluminal message passes between the, an event for which physics has no explanation? The theorem seems to indicate also that events (and maybe people) can be influenced by forces that are "non-local" -- extremely remote.

Herbert explained it this way: "The mechanism for this instant connectedness is not some invisible field that stretches from one part to the next, but the fact that "a bit of each part's 'being' is lodged in the other."

Bell was not talking about people, but particles, yet his theorem has been eagerly adopred by believers in extrasensory perception: If particles can "communicate" with each other simultaneously over long distances (violating Einstein's speed limit), minds can surely do the same.

Everyone has heard the stories: A mother wakes up in alarm and learns later that her child at that moment was in danger. "Remote viewing" experiments at SRI International and elsewhere claim to substantiate telepathic communication. Perhaps part of each person's being is "lodged in the other."

And perhaps, some say, both are lodged in a transcendental mind that constitutes the basic order of the universe. Is science, I wondered, finally meeting religion in the rarified atmosphere of Bell's Theorem?

Herbert was speculating in a different direction about faster-than-light communication: "Superluminal signals would open up similar channels from the present to the past -- channels that would allow people today to change what by conventional reckoning has already happened.

I was reminded of a certain legendary young female:

There was a young lady named Bright
Who traveled much faster than light
She went out one day
in a relative way
And came back the previous night.

I was already drawing up a list of past events I would like to "unhappen; when Herbert's colleague spoke up in dissent. Pagels is the author of The Cosmic Code: Quantum Physics as the Language of Nature and a new book on the origin of the universe Perfect Symmetry: The Search for the Beginning of Time. He is also the executive director of the New York Academy of Sciences and somewhat of an iconoclast. it turned out he didn't agree with Herbert at all.

Heinz Pagels & Nick Herbert, circa 1964
"Bell's Theorem does not prove that anything can travel faster than light," Pagels maintained, "It's a quantum fact, accepted by everyone, that the observer has an effect on what he's observing. Under Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, as soon as you observe or measure certain aspects of the quantum world, you change them. So the change in Bell's particle, which seems to happen faster than light, simply reflects what the observers are doing when they measure the particles."

Herbert's response and Pagels' rebuttal went too fast for me to even begin to follow, but it was clear that the two views represented a central schism in the fast-moving world of quantum physics -- Pagels representing the establishment view and Herbert the speculative, philosophical school.

When the dust had settled, i raised a question that had plagued me throughout the weekend. Physicists can spin mystifying theories about the invisible world of the quanta, but what does all this have to do with the price of potatoes?

Pagels responded with a glowing vision: "Quantum research results in new technologies, giant new industries, new economies, and in fact a whole new idea of civilization can come out of these developments. New technologies change our perceptions. The printing press, for example, led to the development of books and a new literacy that made democracy possible. The impact of computers has already made major changes in our economy.

"Nuclear weapons have created a period of unsurpassed world stability. There has not been a war between two nuclear nations -- as a result of a technology that came out of quantum physics.

"We're already living in the world of the quantum revolution: Microchips, the whole world of the computers, the whole world of the revolutions in molecular biology -- all these came out of the human mastery of the microworld that was made possible in part by the advent of quantum physics. The full implications of living in the world of the quantum revolution have not yet dawned on us. But these new technologies are driving the engines of social change,"

We sat there in silence for a moment, listening to the roar of the ocean. Then somebody said it: "But are they driving the engines of social change in the right direction? Nuclear weapons. for example ..."

Pagels responded: "I said these were technologies that changed our perceptions. I didn't say whether they were for better or for worse. That's for other people to decide, in terms of their own values. The new technologies open a whole new spectrum of moral choices, alerting people to examine their own consciences about matters as fundamental as human survival. My own view is that we must learn to live without using nuclear weapons."

I thought about that as i shifted around on the uncomfortable pillows that substitute for chairs at Esalen. it seemed to me that there was one overarching fact that had not received much attention: Quantum physics is giving us incredible new powers that we are ill-equipped to use. It's like putting a 5-year-old at the steering wheel of a Maserati on a downtown street. Compared with the R & D devoted to quantum research and its weapons-technology offspring, the attention given to learning how to use these powers wisely is minuscule.

Later, as I strolled along the clifftops over the roaring surf, it occurred to me that the contribution of quantum theory might not be limited to technology. For example, pre-quantum physicists assumed that the constituents of an atom were simply particles like electrons and neutrons. Later theorists decided that they were not particles but waves. The current view is that they are simultaneously particles and waves. Not "either/or" but "both/and".

In the Newtonian particle view everything was sharply defined as one thing or the other. Quantum theory introduces the idea that an object can be perceived in two or more ways, each valid. To be and not to be. That's the meaning of ambiguity.

The American mind, schooled in Newtonian definiteness and frontier certainties, is accustomed to precise labels. There are good guys and bad guys. There are friends and enemies. You are either with us or against us.

It seemed to me, as I paced the shoreline, that the quantum "both/and" approach might prove useful in our relations with each other and with other nations. A nation (like a person) might be aggressive, intransigent and tyrannical. It might simultaneously be peace-loving, friendly and cooperative. And the question would be: Can we move beyond merely opposing the negative qualities to encouraging the positive ones with equal energy and vigor?

Here, I speculated, might be a model that could revolutionize world politics just as the discovery of the quanta has revolutionized physics. It would not be the first time that a new scientific paradigm had led to a new world-view that had altered everyone's thinking in profound ways and influenced the course of history.

Or maybe, I thought, as I inhaled the aroma of salt and kelp on the sea breeze and watched the sunlight glittering from the swells offshore, maybe I was just experiencing an Esalen high.

View of Pacific Ocean from the Esalen baths

Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Super Natural: A Book Review

The Super Natural by Whitley Strieber and Jeffrey J. Kripal
For my 80th Christmas on this planet, I treated myself to a weird hardback book by two experienced explorers of strange phenomena that lie outside of what these days passes for science. Whitley Strieber is the author of Communion in which he describes his personal contact with "non-human beings" -- contact that continues in some form to this day. Jeff Kripal is the author of several scholarly and popular books on comparative religion with an emphasis on the particular experiences which gave rise to various religious beliefs and to alleged insights into the nature of reality.

This book features each of the specialists taking turns writing a chapter, so the book reads as a dialog between an experimenter (Whitney) and a theoretician (Jeff). But this simple distinction is blurred by the fact that Whitney theorizes about the meaning of his experiences and Jeff adds experiences of his own and of his colleagues to his theories of how to deal reasonably with unreasonable experiences. This taking turns works: each man respects the other's expertise but the two do not always agree.

A further feature of this book is the fact that after he published Communion, Whitley received hundreds of thousands (!) of letters from people all over the world that had had similar bizarre experiences many of which could be classified as some sort of non-human contact -- a valuable data base for those scholars of any persuasion interested in the study of unusual human experiences. Judging from the volume of Strieber's correspondence, experiences of this sort do not appear to be rare. But for obvious reasons, people rarely talk out loud about them. Would you?

Whitley attempts to describe his experiences without injecting his own interpretations, but admits that maintaining his objectivity is difficult because these events are characterized by ambiguity and by strong emotions -- primarily fear. Kripal takes the long view, arguing that emotionally powerful, ambiguous experiences of this sort have been happening to people thoughout all of recorded history. And that some of these "non-human contacts" -- Moses with the Burning Bush, Mohammed with the angel Gabriel, for example -- have led directly to the birth of new world religions that attracted billions of followers.

So, Jeff argues, such experiences are not unimportant for human history, but we are not required to see them in the same light as did their original participants. Neither are we required, Jeff adds, to view them thru the fundamentalist goggles of atheistic materialism. Let's be real scientists here, ladies and gentlemen, he urges. Let's try to set aside contemporary prejudices and work open-mindedly to discover what these strange not-so-rare experiences are trying to tell us about the nature of human (and non-human) reality.

As Whitley succinctly puts it: "We don't know what they are because we don't know what we are."

Jeff's tentative model for understanding such experiences is that each of us is part of a Larger Mind -- the "Human as Two" in Kripal's words -- part Human and part Divine. Divine and Human? Two ill-defined words like the words Classical and Quantum, which taken together make four important concepts that humans need to learn to use correctly (we haven't yet) if we hope to better understand the mental and physical reality of which we are made.

Can the notion of being part of a Larger Mind help us to understand such unusual phenomena as mathematical prodigies, lucky hunches, numinous coincidences, voices in the head, crisis telepathy, magical links between lovers, veridical visions, "the fickle finger of Fate", scientific, musical, artistic and poetic inspiration, plus the mysterious Zeitgeist itself -- that inexorable spirit of the times that seems to carry all before it like a flood -- perhaps even making sense of the unexpected election of President Donald Trump?

Strieber's way of acquiring knowledge by direct personal experience, rather than through books or teachers, fits into a religious category called Gnosticism which has a long tradition.

Jeff Kripal & Nick Herbert, Esalen Lodge, July 2010. photo: August O'Connor
Reading Kripal's description of ancient Gnosticism in The Super Natural: A New Vision of the Unexplained, I was inspired (by Big Mind?) to add my own two centavos. Jeff's text forms its scholarly core, classical human Nick (and his divine quantum Muse) provide the title and the admonition. Let the following verse express one mindful collaborative response to this challenging and unusual book:

by Jeff Kripal & Nick Herbert

The ancient Gnostics
Did not know what we know:
They did not have 

Modern cosmology
Quantum physics
Evolutionary biology.


In space-time habitation
Quantum mind alive in primate body
Our priestly task is clear:

Listen like a sly physician
To demons, aliens, angels,
Gods, efreets and witches.

By the light of wildest intuition
Expose our wise men's trinity of theories
As hidden Holy Spirit, bitches!

As hidden Holy Spirit.

Image by Todd Stock, aka Dr Paradise

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Gilliam Does Quantum Reality: Part One

Harold Gilliam (1918 - 2016)
Harold Gilliam died this month (Dec 2016) at age 98. He was an eloquent writer on environmental issues and a popular columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Intending perhaps to explore the inner environment of the physical world, Gilliam attended a weekend workshop at Esalen Institute in the summer of 1985 given by myself and my friend and physics colleague Heinz Pagels, To commemorate Gilliam's death and the death of Pagels who died a few years later, I am reprinting a few week apart the two Sunday Chronicle columns that Gilliam wrote about his experience with us in Big Sur. Part Two is here. Fasten your seat belts for "Gilliam Does Quantum Reality: Part One"

Harold Gilliam SF Chronicle Aug 18, 1985

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific -- and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise --
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
 -- John Keats

In the last 10 years physicists have learned
more about the universe than in previous
centuries -- they have seen a new picture of reality
requiring a conversion of our imaginations.
 -- Heinz Pagels

Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory
has not understood it.
  -- Niels Bohr

Driving down the Big Sur coast to Esalen the other day, looking for some clues to the new picture of reality, I saw on roadside buildings, along several miles of Highway 1, big hand-lettered signs: THANK YOU, FIREFIGHTERS.

The reason for the expression of gratitude soon became evident.. The steep hillsides to the left of the road were charred for miles where the Rat Creek fire had raced down the slopes on a hot dry wind from the east, burning nearly everything in its path.

Esalen, on the ocean side of the highway, barely escaped. The burned hills behind us were screened by Esalen's trees, and we faced the ocean, but occasionally we caught the odor of the scorched earth of the Santa Lucia, and that pungent reminder of another reality became a symbol of the ambiguities in the amazing world of the quanta.

The weekend workshop had a formidable title: "Bell's Theorem and the Nature of Reality." Our leaders were Bay Area physicist Nick Herbert, author of the new book Quantum Reality: Beyond the New Physics and Heinz Pagels, executive director of the New York Academy of Sciences, author of The Cosmic Code: Quantum Physics as the Language of Nature and Perfect Symmetry: the Search for the Beginning of Time.

With titles like these, we were expecting some tall talk, and we got it, interspersed with good-natured banter between the two physicists who were each convinced that on certain points the other was dead wrong.

In the mellowed-out ambience of Esalen, the 17 workshop participants sprawled on the carpeted living-room floor of the Big House, a former seaside residence, and contemplated the invisible microcosm of the quanta, which seems to turn our common-sense view of the world upside down, or maybe inside out.

The future results of such a revolutionary shift in viewpoint are unpredictable, but the phenomenon has happened before in world history. Nick Herbert reminded us the new view of the universe developed by Isaac Newton overturned the hierarchical medieval world view and pictured a world governed by law -- forming a philosophical basis for a society of laws rather than arbitrary leadership.

The Declaration of Independence: ("We hold these truths to be self-evident ---") cited natural law as the basis for democratic government. In the same way, quantum theory, we were told, seems likely to revolutionize our Newtonian-based views of the world -- and maybe also our technology, our economics, our politics, our entire culture.

Newton had described a clockwork universe ticking along in orderly, predictable fashion -- a gigantic machine governed by such laws as gravitation. "Quantum theory," Herbert told us in the Big House at Esalen, "has smashed Newton's clockwork."

What has replaced Newton's clockwork is a picture of reality that can't be grasped by conventional thinking. Listening to Herbert's description of some very weird interpretations of the quantum world, I began to feel that the theories must have come out of a bottle. Actually they came out of a microscope -- or rather out of certain complicated contraptions such as the cyclotron and the bevatron at the University of California at Berkeley, that serve as supermicroscopes peering into the curious world of the atom.

Quanta are simply particles that are atom-sized or smaller; quantum theory describes these particles and their attributes -- more or less. No one has ever seen an atom, of course, but scientists can detect what the atoms are doing and can smash them together to find out what they're made of. As the supermicroscopes improve, they keep finding smaller and smaller particles, like a series of Chinese boxes.

Physicists examining the workings of atoms were badly shaken up when the particles they found seemed to violate Newton's laws that had been accepted for 300 years as descriptions of how the world works.
Quantum Reality image by Todd Stock aka Dr Paradise
"One of the best kept secrets of science," Herbert told us, "is that physicists have lost their grip on reality." He proceeded to list eight different and partly conflicting versions of how physicists look at quantum reality, most of them utterly preposterous to the non-physicist. Consider these, for example:

# The Copenhagen interpretation was originated by the late Niels Bohr and his colleagues at the Copenhagen Institute. Outlandish as it seems, it is now the view of most mainstream theoretical physicists, Herbert explained. The world we see around us is real, but that world is made up of particles that are not real -- at least not as real as what we see.

As if statements like that were not mystifying enough, Herbert went on to point out that some Copenhagen physicists go further and say that even the world we see around us is not real until we observe it.

Sitting there on the floor of the Esalen living room, trying to adjust the big pillows to be more comfortable, I recalled the old riddle as to whether the tree that falls in the forest makes any sound if there's no one there to hear it. These Copenhagen theorists would say: "No, the tree makes no sound because it isn't really there. Nothing is there until somebody observes it."

In other words, reality is created by the observer. Is the reality of the universe a mirror of one's own mind?

A sobering notion, I reflected. Whatever it means. It could mean that we are not simply cogs in Newton's mechanical universe, but that we somehow participate in ongoing Creation. "Observer-created reality" implies that we have something to say about how the world is put together. Maybe.

"The universe," Sir James Jeans wrote as he contemplated quantum theory, "begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine."

Before I could absorb that one, Herbert was listing a further interpretation.

# Reality is an undivided wholeness. We are all part of the universal being. This viewpoint was expressed by Berkeley physicist Fritjof Capra a few years ago in The Tao of Physics, the book that first aroused popular interest in the interpretation of quantum theory. Capra found certain correlations between this quantum view of reality and the teachings of oriental mystics.

The book created flurries of excitement among mental telepathy enthusiasts, who maintained that physics had now proved the existence of what they had believed all along -- that a transcendental unity behind surface appearances included the interconnectedness of human minds with one another and perhaps with a universal mind.

Actually physics proved no such thing. Capra was simply calling attention to some interesting parallels between quantum theory and the intuitions of the mystics.

# The next quantum reality Herbert described for us was the most outrageous of all. It was the "many worlds" interpretation: In this view reality consists of a steadily increasing number of parallel universes.

Science fiction writers have fun with this one. In one universe you are sailing to Alpha Centauri in a space ship. Simultaneously, in another universe you are having chicken dinner with Henry VIII.

Or you toss a coin and it comes up heads, but in another universe on the same toss the same coin comes up tails. Everything that can happen does happen -- someplace, in some other universe.

I protested silently. It makes no sense, it's not logical. But at that moment Herbert started talking about quantum logic, which is totally different from traditional logic. Under the new logic, apparently, parallel universes make sense.

By this time I had been able to rearrange the pillows in a relatively comfortable position, and as I closed my eyes for a moment to contemplate quantum logic, the voices in the room began to merge with the soporific roar of the surf below, and my mind drifted off.

Instead of a quantum physicist talking to us, it was a fellow in a long robe. He was saying that although we can see the sun rising in the east and setting in the west on its daily trip around the Earth, we are suffering from an illusion. Things don't happen that way at all: the Earth is actually revolving around the sun.

What a preposterous notion, I thought. How could anybody believe in such nonsense? The man, who said his name was Copernicus, was obviously out of his mind.

Before I could tell him so, he was gone, and there was physicist Herbert at a blackboard showing us how Bell's Theorem worked. It turned out to be wilder than anything we had heard so far. And if you want to know what all this has to do with the price of a Big Mac or the national deficit or your latest telephone bill, join us here next Sunday.
The Big House: Esalen Institute

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Los Gatos Apple Store

Apple Store, Los Gatos, California


[Nick's Apple iPad device is misbehaving.

Boulder Creek's nearest Apple shop's
in Los Gatos --- a mere seven miles
from the Apple Vatican in Cupertino.]

Enter our sacred Los Gatos sanctuary
Perform the secret Sign of Steve
Shamelessly admit your helplessness
Before the White Lord's LCDs.

Humbly approach our Apple altars
Resist the urge to bend your knees
Of all mankind's mighty marvels
None were quite so fair as these.

Let awe not blind you to your mission
In our technologic paradise
Be mindful of your many sins
And the sins of Your Device.

Soon an Apple-ordained Genius
Will come and hear your full confession
Will lay hands on your bad Device
And calmly banish all transgression.

Devoutly make a good Act of Contrition
Make the Sign of Steve before you go
Gratefully settle your rightful Penance
Using ApplePayment cyber dough.

Go in peace and sin no more
Bless you as you leave our store
Bless friends and kindred far and near
Bless happy fault that brought you here.

Apple ostiarius instructs two fresh penitents