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 from the Earth 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


Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

You cited Noether's Theorem before to explain Joseph's levitation. I know a Chinese qigong master who also levitated once when he was in deep meditation at a sacred mountain. He said he spiraled up nine feet while he was in full lotus meditation.

The quantum relative entropy (negative entropy) is now considered feasible as a work source.

"The scientists also point out that this process of erasing information with spin has already been experimentally demonstrated, although it appears to have gone unnoticed. In spin-exchange optical pumping, light is used to excite electrons in an atom to a higher energy level. For the electrons to return to their lower energy level during the relaxation process, atoms and nuclei collide with each other and exchange spins. This entropy-decreasing process can be considered analogous to erasing information at a cost of spin exchange.
Overall, the new results reveal insight into the thermodynamics of spin and could also guide the development of future applications. These could include new kinds of heat engines and information processing devices based on erasure that use inexpensive, locally available resources such as spin angular momentum. The researchers plan to further pursue these possibilities in the future.
"The erasure mechanism can be used to design generalized heat engines operating under the reservoirs of multiple conserved quantities such as a thermal reservoir and a spin reservoir," Bedkihal said. "For example, one may design heat engines using semiconductor quantum dot systems where lattice vibrations constitute a thermal reservoir and nuclear spins constitute a polarized spin reservoir. Such heat engines go beyond the traditional Carnot heat engine that operates under two thermal reservoirs."

More information: Toshio Croucher, Salil Bedkihal, and Joan A. Vaccaro. "Discrete Fluctuations in Memory Erasure without Energy Cost." Physical Review Letters. DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.118.060602, Also at arXiv:1604.05795 [quant-ph]

My full lotus meditation alchemy training indeed encountered a "spacetime vortex" as antigravity energy - this is the Emptiness. Yan Xin, qigong master, calls it a "virtual information field" that is the secret to his mass healing 7 hour meditations. has my research.