Monday, December 12, 2011
What were your main goals for your new book?
One goal was to describe the science I'm interested in today: the physics happening at the LHC and searches for dark matter. But I also wanted to clarify the nature of science: what it means to be right and wrong, what it means to make measurements, and the roles of uncertainty, risk and creativity.
Do you feel the physics community is on the verge of finding something remarkable?
I certainly hope so. We have a good chance [with the LHC] to see the Higgs particle, which tells us how elementary particles acquire mass. Other deep issues include space-time symmetry and whether there are extra dimensions. We really do have a chance of making inroads on those subjects. There are a lot of bizarre ideas here, from string theory to a "brane" of extra dimensions right next to our own.
Why should we regard these ideas as more than fanciful constructs?
I'm certainly not asking anyone to take on faith any of the ideas that I present. That's part of the point of the book: science proceeds, and we systematically end up with new ideas and explanations, going from the human scales we're very familiar with to scales that are so remote it's hard to have intuition about them. Science is a self-correcting process, too, something that I expect will happen with the recent announcement of neutrinos that may move faster than the speed of light.
Can you describe the essence of your idea about extra dimensions?
There could be more to the universe than the three dimensions we are familiar with. They are hidden from us in some way, perhaps because they're tiny or warped. But even if they're invisible, they could affect what we actually observe in the universe. There are lots of things we cannot see with the naked eye that turn out to be based in reality. Extra dimensions could be relevant to one of the questions we're trying to answer at the LHC: how particles get their mass, and why they have the masses that they do, which are far smaller than physicists would expect them to be. So our idea is there's an extra dimension that's so warped, the masses would be big in one place and small in another. In other words, gravity could be weaker in one place and stronger in another. If so, it could be a natural explanation both for why particles masses are what they are, and why gravity is so much weaker than the other elementary forces we observe. This extra dimension could be separated from ours by a million trillion trillionth of a centimeter.
Is this a parallel yet inaccessible universe?
It interacts with our dimensions only via gravity. And gravity is extremely weak. An elementary particle at ordinary energies exerts negligible gravitational force. But at the LHC, if this idea is right, we would see evidence of this extra dimension. Particles could carry momentum into the extra dimension, and that could actually be observable.
But it's not something you think of as a "parallel universe?"
Technically, yes, it could exist parallel to our universe. But it's not just a carbon copy of our universe, which a lot of people think of when they hear that phrase. If physicists do find solid evidence of extra dimensions, how would that affect our view of the universe and our place in it?
You can have very exotic underlying phenomena, but they still would be consistent with the ordinary rules we're familiar with. At some level, it doesn't change anything. However, it means that at some deep underlying level, there's a much richer universe out there. It's just a wonderful thing to know what our universe is made of.
You describe the LHC as a "stupendous achievement."
Technologically, it's a tour de force. The fact that this thing works is amazing. We're looking for very rare events, so you need a very precise, very well understood machine to make them and detectors to understand what you see. You need an extreme amount of energy focused in a very tiny region to make these collisions happen, allowing the subcomponents of protons—quarks and gluons—to collide directly. And when they do, they can make new forms of heavier matter.Many people feared the LHC would produce a planet-devouring black hole. Scientists took it very seriously, and they ruled out this possibility not only theoretically, but also by looking at collisions of cosmic rays that create this same type of energy. We live in a world where there are many risks, and it's high time we start taking seriously which ones we should be worried about. Physicists showed this particular one is not a risk.
You offer a forthright discussion about religion and its compatibility with science. Why did you decide to broach that subject?
I almost had to in a book titled Knocking on Heaven's Door. But there is real confusion about what it means to be right and wrong—the difference between what spiritual beliefs are and what science is. I felt that if I was going to explain science, it was important to explain those distinctions. I wanted to take seriously the different views of the universe that people have, but to say there really are differences.
You wrote: "The religious part of your brain cannot act at the same time as the scientific one. They are simply incompatible.”
When I say they are incompatible, I mean something very specific: A spiritual belief based on something that isn't based on actual material or cause and effect—the ways we understand scientifically—is just different than science. It's a very specific statement.
When you speak to public audiences, which popular misconception about physics strikes you the most?
You're trying to get me in trouble! It's probably the over-application of quantum mechanics. People think it explains things that it can't. There are a lot of mysteries about quantum mechanics, but they mostly arise in very detailed measurements in controlled settings.
You describe the LHC's giant detectors as works of art. Is probing the nature of the universe just as much an aesthetic endeavor as a scientific one?
Art and science do appeal to some of the same creative instincts. There's an appreciation of something larger than ourselves, which I think both art and science address. However, you can have a beautiful idea in science, and it can be just wrong—not because it's mathematically inconsistent, but because it's not realized in the world.
-Robert Irion (“Opening Strange Portals in Physics,” Smithsonian magazine, September 2011. Image from The Twilight Zone, Spiral Staircase.)
Thursday, December 8, 2011
Biologist Lynn Margulis died on November 22nd. She stood out from her colleagues in that she would have extended evolutionary studies nearly four billion years back in time. Her major work was in cell evolution, in which the great event was the appearance of the eukaryotic, or nucleated, cell — the cell upon which all larger life-forms are based. Nearly forty-five years ago, she argued for its symbiotic origin: that it arose by associations of different kinds of bacteria. Her ideas were generally either ignored or ridiculed when she first proposed them; symbiosis in cell evolution is now considered one of the great scientific breakthroughs.
Margulis was also a champion of the Gaia hypothesis, an idea developed in the 1970s by the free lance British atmospheric chemist James E. Lovelock. The Gaia hypothesis states that the atmosphere and surface sediments of the planet Earth form a self- regulating physiological system — Earth's surface is alive. The strong version of the hypothesis, which has been widely criticized by the biological establishment, holds that the earth itself is a self-regulating organism; Margulis subscribed to a weaker version, seeing the planet as an integrated self- regulating ecosystem. She was criticized for succumbing to what George Williams called the "God-is good" syndrome, as evidenced by her adoption of metaphors of symbiosis in nature. She was, in turn, an outspoken critic of mainstream evolutionary biologists for what she saw as a failure to adequately consider the importance of chemistry and microbiology in evolution.
As I wrote in the introduction to the first part of the book (Part I: The Evolutionary Idea: "The principal debates are concerned with the mechanism of speciation; whether natural selection operates at the level of the gene, the organism, or the species, or all three; and also with the relative importance of other factors, such as natural catastrophes." These very public debates were concerned with ideas represented by George C. Williams and Richard Dawkins on one side and Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge on the other side. Not for Lynn Margulis, all the above scientists were wrong because evolutionary studies needed to begin four billion years back in time. And she was not shy about expressing her opinions. Her in-your-face, take-no-prisoners stance was pugnacious and tenacious. She was impossible. She was wonderful.
- John Brockman ("Lynn Margulis 1938-2011, Gaia Is A Tough Bitch:" The Edge, 11.23.2011. Image: Artist rendering of cell structure, 2010.
Saturday, November 19, 2011
Monday, November 14, 2011
The Emotional Factor
“As I said before, I do not think that the real reason why people accept religion has anything to do with argumentation. They accept religion on emotional grounds. One is often told that it is a very wrong thing to attack religion, because religion makes men virtuous. So I am told; I have not noticed it. You know, of course, the parody of that argument in Samuel Butler's book, Erewhon Revisited. You will remember that in Erewhon there is a certain Higgs who arrives in a remote country, and after spending some time there he escapes from that country in a balloon. Twenty years later he comes back to that country and finds a new religion in which he is worshiped under the name of the "Sun Child," and it is said that he ascended into heaven. He finds that the Feast of the Ascension is about to be celebrated, and he hears Professors Hanky and Panky say to each other that they never set eyes on the man Higgs, and they hope they never will; but they are the high priests of the religion of the Sun Child. He is very indignant, and he comes up to them, and he says, "I am going to expose all this humbug and tell the people of Erewhon that it was only I, the man Higgs, and I went up in a balloon." He was told, "You must not do that, because all the morals of this country are bound round this myth, and if they once know that you did not ascend into Heaven they will all become wicked"; and so he is persuaded of that and he goes quietly away.
That is the idea -- that we should all be wicked if we did not hold to the Christian religion. It seems to me that the people who have held to it have been for the most part extremely wicked. You find this curious fact, that the more intense has been the religion of any period and the more profound has been the dogmatic belief, the greater has been the cruelty and the worse has been the state of affairs. In the so-called ages of faith, when men really did believe the Christian religion in all its completeness, there was the Inquisition, with all its tortures; there were millions of unfortunate women burned as witches; and there was every kind of cruelty practiced upon all sorts of people in the name of religion.
You find as you look around the world that every single bit of progress in humane feeling, every improvement in the criminal law, every step toward the diminution of war, every step toward better treatment of the colored races, or every mitigation of slavery, every moral progress that there has been in the world, has been consistently opposed by the organized churches of the world. I say quite deliberately that the Christian religion, as organized in its churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world."
Fear, the Foundation of Religion
"Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly, as I have said, the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing -- fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion have gone hand in hand. It is because fear is at the basis of those two things. In this world we can now begin a little to understand things, and a little to master them by help of science, which has forced its way step by step against the Christian religion, against the churches, and against the opposition of all the old precepts. Science can help us to get over this craven fear in which mankind has lived for so many generations. Science can teach us, and I think our own hearts can teach us, no longer to look around for imaginary supports, no longer to invent allies in the sky, but rather to look to our own efforts here below to make this world a better place to live in, instead of the sort of place that the churches in all these centuries have made it."
What We Must Do
"We want to stand upon our own feet and look fair and square at the world -- its good facts, its bad facts, its beauties, and its ugliness; see the world as it is and be not afraid of it. Conquer the world by intelligence and not merely by being slavishly subdued by the terror that comes from it. The whole conception of God is a conception derived from the ancient Oriental despotisms. It is a conception quite unworthy of free men. When you hear people in church debasing themselves and saying that they are miserable sinners, and all the rest of it, it seems contemptible and not worthy of self-respecting human beings. We ought to stand up and look the world frankly in the face. We ought to make the best we can of the world, and if it is not so good as we wish, after all it will still be better than what these others have made of it in all these ages. A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage; it does not need a regretful hankering after the past or a fettering of the free intelligence by the words uttered long ago by ignorant men. It needs a fearless outlook and a free intelligence. It needs hope for the future, not looking back all the time toward a past that is dead, which we trust will be far surpassed by the future that our intelligence can create. “
-Bertrand Russell (EXCERPT: “Why I am not a Christian”, Russell delivered this lecture on March 6, 1927 to the National Secular Society, South London Branch, at Battersea Town Hall. Published in pamphlet form in that same year, the essay subsequently achieved new fame with Paul Edwards' edition of Russell's book, Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays, 1957. VIDEO INTERVIEW: Bertrand Russell, 1959).
Thursday, November 10, 2011
”A man may be so much of everything that he is nothing of anything.” -Samuel Johnson
A CONVERSATION: between Samuel Johnson & James Boswell, 1778:
Boswell: We must be contented to acknowledge that death is a terrible thing.
Johnson: Yes, sir. I have made no approaches to a state which can look on it as not terrible. Mrs. Knowles: Does not St. Paul say, “I have fought the good fight of faith, I have finished my course; henceforth is laid up for me a crown of life”?
Johnson: Yes, madam, but here was a man inspired, a man who had been converted by supernatural interposition.
Boswell: In prospect death is dreadful, but in fact we find that people die easy.
Johnson: Why, sir, most people have not thought much of the matter, so cannot say much, and it is supposed they die easy. Few believe it certain they are then to die, and those who do set themselves to behave with resolution, as a man does who is going to be hanged—he is not the less unwilling to be hanged.
Ms. Seward: There is one mode of the fear of death, which is certainly absurd: and that is the dread of annihilation, which is only a pleasing sleep without a dream.
Johnson: It is neither pleasing, nor sleep; it is nothing. Now mere existence is so much better than nothing that one would rather exist, even in pain, than not exist.
Boswell: If annihilation be nothing, then existing in pain is not a comparative state, but is a positive evil which I cannot think we should choose. I must be allowed to differ here, and it would lessen the hope of a future state founded on the argument that the Supreme Being, who is good as he is great, will hereafter compensate for our present sufferings in this life. For if existence, such as we have it here, be comparatively a good, we have no reason to complain, though no more of it should be given to us. But if our only state of existence were in this world, then we might with some reason complain that we are so dissatisfied with our enjoyments compared with our desires.
Johnson: The lady confounds annihilation, which is nothing, with the apprehension of it, which is dreadful. It is in the apprehension of it that the horror of annihilation consists.
- Samuel Johnson & James Boswell, 1778 / London, ( “ A Conversation: The Dying Is Easy ,” Lapham’s Quarterly. Image: Unknown, Woman visited by Death ).
NOTE: James Boswell, from Life of Johnson. Arriving in London from Edinburgh in 1762, Boswell, then in his early twenties, soon met and befriended Samuel Johnson, who was a prominent essayist, poet, and lexicographer in his fifties. Boswell’s account of Johnson and his own journals, the latter only rediscovered in the twentieth century, form his unique contribution to the world of letters. His Life was published in two volumes in 1791, seven years after its subject had died at the age of seventy-five.
Monday, October 31, 2011
“I have learned not to think little of any one's belief, no matter how strange it may be. I have tried to keep an open mind, and it is not the ordinary things of life that could close it, but the strange things, the extraordinary things, the things that make one doubt if they be mad or sane.” - Bram Stoker.
THE private journal of Dracula creator Bram Stoker has been found after lying undiscovered on his great-grandson's bookshelf in England, it emerged today. Stoker recorded his thoughts about his legendary character and other stories in the thin, unmarked book.
It had been passed down by his ancestors for more than a century before arriving in Noel Dobbs' home on the Isle of Wight.
Providing a snapshot of Dublin between 1871 and 1881, as well as a window on the life of the very private Stoker, the notebook was found by the author's great-grandson, Noel Dobbs. Dobbs sent photographs of pages from the book to his relative, Stoker's great-grandnephew Dacre Stoker author of the recent novel Dracula: The Un-Dead, and Stoker has worked to decipher his ancestor's "terrible" handwriting with Dr Elizabeth Miller of the Transylvanian Society of Dracula. The Lost Journal, complete with annotations, is now lined up for publication by Robson Press next year, marking the centenary of Bram Stoker's death in 1912.
The 100-odd-page notebook covers the period when Stoker was a student at Trinity College in Dublin and a clerk at Dublin Castle, written in a clear precursor to the journalistic style of Dracula and containing the author's earliest attempts at poetry and prose. "There are some definite parallels between this notebook and Jonathan Harker's journal, and certain entries from Bram's notebook actually resurfaced twentysomething years later in Dracula. Because he wrote little about himself, Dracula fans and Stoker scholars have largely been free to speculate about Bram. Rumours and myths have taken on a life of their own. Now, with this chapter of Bram's life revealed, the rest of his life will be more accurately interpreted," said Dacre Stoker.
'It's kind of incredible, but Noel was rather blasé about it,' said Dacre. 'When I saw it, I was amazed. 'I thought, 'The Holy Grail! We've found it!'
'There is so little written by Bram about Bram. Family, scholars and hard-core fans -- so many people have wanted to know what made the man who wrote 'Dracula' tick. And here we had a major set of clues.'
His book, 'The Lost Journal,' will be published next March to mark 100 years since the author died in April 1912.
Dacre Stoker has worked with Bram Stoker scholars to annotate the journal which the author began in 1871 when he was in his early 20s. It would be more than a decade before the author learned about the primary inspiration for his Count Dracula, 'Vlad the Impaler.'
The last entry of Stoker's journal in 1881 hints at a major character he would use in Dracula, a man who was driven to eat living things including flies.
Another entry reads "A man builds up a shadow on a wall bit by bit by adding to substance. Suddenly the shadow becomes alive", and would later become the kernel for Stoker's story The Shadow Builder. A note reading "'Palace of Fairy Queen. Child goes to sleep & palace grows – sky changes into blue silk curtains" foreshadows Stoker's frequent use of dreaming children in stories including Lies and Lilies and The Wondrous Child.
Stoker died before his Count Dracula became internationally famous when Bela Lugosi played him as a suave nobleman in the 1930s film. But in true Bram Stoker style, he left behind one more mystery. In one of his books, the author alludes to another diary which is not the notes found in the Isle of Wight.
'There's something else out there - that missing piece, this mystery diary,' Stoker said. 'I'm dying to know where it is.'”
( "It's the Holy Grail': Private journal of Dracula's creator Bram Stoker found on relative's bookshelf on the Isle of Wight", 10/31/2011. Image: Book cover for Bram Stoker's Dracula, Penguin Classics.).
Wednesday, July 13, 2011
Anonymous Speaks: Operation Bohemian Grove, 7.13. 2011: "Fools! Fools! Fools To Dream You Conquer Care..."
"Weaving soldiers come not here." - On Bohemian Grove Logo.
The hackers’ collective Anonymous may have obtained “literally explosive” information concerning Bohemian Grove, an annual gathering of power brokers from the US and Europe set to meet this week in California, which many see as a nefarious avenue through which elitists secretly manipulate world affairs.
Bohemian Grove is a privately owned 2,700 acre compound in Monte Rio, California surrounded by giant old-growth redwood trees. Once a year it plays host to a bizarre confab attended by some of the most powerful people in the world, including many US politicians and government officials, during which participants embroil themselves in a heady mixture of plutocratic plotting and occult pagan ritual ceremonies.
The Anonymous hacking group, which has already announced its intention to occupy the entrance to the Bohemian Grove compound as a protest against the group’s secrecy, may also be about to leak a whole treasure trove of information about the organization as part of what has been dubbed “the biggest day in Anonymous’s history”.
As part of a series of hacks conducted to protest the treatment of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, to whom Anonymous has attached itself, the collective says it is about to unleash “literally explosive” material on a number of organizations, including the London Metropolitan Police and other agencies connected to the UK judicial system.
The hacks are timed to coincide with Assange’s appeal hearing against extradition, which begins today.
“Speculation centres around material claimed to have been obtained last week from contractors relating to security and secrecy of “former world leaders”, or plans to target a senior leaders’ retreat at Bohemian Grove, California,” write the Guardian’s James Ball and Charles Arthur
Former Secretaries of State George Shultz and James Baker are set to give lakeside talks at the event this year, which begins Friday and runs for the next two weeks. But the details of what they say will not be covered by any media outlet, the meeting is secret and any uninvited guests are hastily dealt with by security guards and police.
Alex Jones became the first journalist to capture on video the ‘Cremation of Care’ ceremony, where Grove members dressed in "Eyes Wide Shut" style hooded capes make a mock child sacrifice to Moloch, the pagan owl god, represented as a 50-foot statue carved out of a hollowed redwood tree.
Presidents Nixon and Reagan both attended the elitist get-together before they captured the Oval Office. George W. Bush was also introduced to Grove power brokers in 1995 by his father five years before becoming President.
Nixon infamously later described the encampment as the “most faggy goddamned thing you could ever imagine,”perhaps in reference to the fact that male prostitutes and porn stars are routinely transported to the facility to “serve the moguls,” as the New York Post reported in 2004. Few women are allowed to work at the camp and those that do are prevented from accessing many areas of the site. Young men of high school and college age make up most of the temporary employees hired by Grove organizers.
Although the establishment media routinely claims the event is little more than a holiday camp, in 1942 it was the setting for the birthplace of the Manhattan Project which led to the creation of the atomic bomb, a story often retold by Grove members who are proud of the fact that the most important scientific development of the 20th century was conceived there.
-Paul Joseph Watson ( "Anonymous Could Unleash “Literally Explosive” Material on Bohemian Grove," Prison Planet.com, 7-12-2011.
Tuesday, June 14, 2011
"The 2053 nuclear tests and explosions that took place between 1945 and 1998 are plotted visually and audibly on a world map. As the video starts out detonations are few and far between. The first three detonations represent the Manhattan Project and the two bombs that ended World War II. After a few representative minutes the USSR and Britain enter the nuclear club and the testing really starts to heat up.
Sunday, June 12, 2011
"Shortly before his death, Marlon Brando was working on a series of instructional videos about acting, to be called “Lying for a Living”. On the surviving footage, Brando can be seen dispensing gnomic advice on his craft to a group of enthusiastic, if somewhat bemused, Hollywood stars, including Leonardo Di Caprio and Sean Penn. Brando also recruited random people from the Los Angeles street and persuaded them to improvise (the footage is said to include a memorable scene featuring two dwarves and a giant Samoan). “If you can lie, you can act,” Brando told Jod Kaftan, a writer for Rolling Stone and one of the few people to have viewed the footage. “Are you good at lying?” asked Kaftan. “Jesus,” said Brando, “I’m fabulous at it.”
Brando was not the first person to note that the line between an artist and a liar is a fine one. If art is a kind of lying, then lying is a form of art, albeit of a lower order—as Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain have observed. Both liars and artists refuse to accept the tyranny of reality. Both carefully craft stories that are worthy of belief—a skill requiring intellectual sophistication, emotional sensitivity and physical self-control (liars are writers and performers of their own work). Such parallels are hardly coincidental, as I discovered while researching my book on lying. Indeed, lying and artistic storytelling spring from a common neurological root—one that is exposed in the cases of psychiatric patients who suffer from a particular kind of impairment.
A case study published in 1985 by Antonio Damasio, a neurologist, tells the story of a middle-aged woman with brain damage caused by a series of strokes. She retained cognitive abilities, including coherent speech, but what she actually said was rather unpredictable. Checking her knowledge of contemporary events, Damasio asked her about the Falklands War. This patient spontaneously described a blissful holiday she had taken in the islands, involving long strolls with her husband and the purchase of local trinkets from a shop. Asked what language was spoken there, she replied, “Falklandese. What else?”
In the language of psychiatry, this woman was ‘confabulating’. Chronic confabulation is a rare type of memory problem that affects a small proportion of brain-damaged people. In the literature it is defined as “the production of fabricated, distorted or misinterpreted memories about oneself or the world, without the conscious intention to deceive”. Whereas amnesiacs make errors of omission—there are gaps in their recollections they find impossible to fill—confabulators make errors of commission: they make things up. Rather than forgetting, they are inventing.
Confabulating patients are nearly always oblivious to their own condition, and will earnestly give absurdly implausible explanations of why they’re in hospital, or talking to a doctor. One patient, asked about his surgical scar, explained that during the second world war he surprised a teenage girl who shot him three times in the head, killing him, only for surgery to bring him back to life. The same patient, when asked about his family, described how at various times they had died in his arms, or had been killed before his eyes. Others tell yet more fantastical tales, about trips to the moon, fighting alongside Alexander in India or seeing Jesus on the Cross. Confabulators aren’t out to deceive. They engage in what Morris Moscovitch, a neuropsychologist, calls “honest lying”. Uncertain, and obscurely distressed by their uncertainty, they are seized by a “compulsion to narrate”: a deep-seated need to shape, order and explain what they do not understand.
As with the woman who told of her holiday in the Falklands, the stories spun by chronic confabulators are conjured up instantaneously—an interlocutor only has to ask a question, or say a particular word, and they’re off, like a jazz saxophonist using a phrase thrown out by his pianist as the start of his solo. A patient might explain to her visiting friend that she’s in hospital because she now works as a psychiatrist, that the man standing next to her (the real doctor) is her assistant, and they are about to visit a patient. Chronic confabulators are often highly inventive at the verbal level, jamming together words in nonsensical but suggestive ways: one patient, when asked what happened to Queen Marie Antoinette of France, answered that she had been “suicided” by her family. In a sense, these patients are like novelists, as described by Henry James: people on whom “nothing is wasted”. Unlike writers, however, they have little or no control over their own material.
Chronic confabulation is usually associated with damage to the brain’s frontal lobes, particularly the region responsible for self-regulation and self-censoring. Of course we all are sensitive to associations—hear the word “scar” and you too might think about war wounds, old movies or tales of near-death experiences. But rarely do we let these random thoughts reach consciousness, and fewer still would ever articulate them. We self-censor for the sake of truth, sense and social appropriateness. Chronic confabulators can’t do this. They randomly combine real memories with stray thoughts, wishes and hopes, and summon up a story from the confusion.
The wider significance of this condition is what it tells us about ourselves. Evidently there is a gushing river of verbal creativity in the normal human mind, from which both artistic invention and lying are drawn. We are born storytellers, spinning narrative out of our experience and imagination, straining against the leash that keeps us tethered to reality. This is a wonderful thing; it is what gives us our ability to conceive of alternative futures and different worlds. And it helps us to understand our own lives through the entertaining stories of others. But it can lead us into trouble, particularly when we try to persuade others that our inventions are real. Most of the time, as our stories bubble up to consciousness, we exercise our cerebral censors, controlling which stories we tell, and to whom. Yet people lie for all sorts of reasons, including the fact that confabulating can be dangerously fun.
During a now-famous libel case in 1996, Jonathan Aitken, a former cabinet minister, recounted a tale to illustrate the horrors he endured after a national newspaper tainted his name. He told of how, on leaving his home in Westminster one morning with his teenage daughter, he found himself ‘stampeded’ by a documentary crew. Upset and scared by the crew’s aggressive behaviour, his daughter burst into tears, he said, and Aitken bundled her into his ministerial car. But as they drove away he realised that they were being followed by the journalists in their van. A hair-raising chase across central London ensued. The journalists were only shaken off when Aitken executed a cunning deception: he stopped at the Spanish embassy and swapped vehicles.
The case, which stretched on for more than two years, involved a series of claims made by the Guardian about Aitken’s relationships with Saudi arms dealers, including meetings he allegedly held with them on a trip to Paris while he was a government minister. What amazed many in hindsight was the sheer superfluity of the lies Aitken told during his testimony. Some were necessary to maintain his original lie, but others were told, it appeared, for the sheer thrill of invention. As Aitken stood at the witness stand and piled lie upon lie—apparently carried away by the improvisatory act of creativity—it’s possible that he felt similar to Brando during one of his performances. Aitken’s case collapsed in June 1997, when the defense finally found indisputable evidence about his Paris trip. Until then, Aitken’s charm, fluency and flair for theatrical displays of sincerity looked as if they might bring him victory. The first big dent in his façade came just days before, when a documentary crew submitted the unedited rushes of their “stampede” encounter with Aitken outside his home. They revealed that not only was Aitken’s daughter not with him that day (when he was indeed doorstepped), but also that the minister had simply got into his car and drove off, with no vehicle in pursuit.
Of course, unlike Aitken, actors, playwrights and novelists are not literally attempting to deceive us, because the rules are laid out in advance: come to the theatre, or open this book, and we’ll lie to you. Perhaps this is why we felt it necessary to invent art in the first place: as a safe space into which our lies can be corralled, and channelled into something socially useful. Given the universal compulsion to tell stories, art is the best way to refine and enjoy the particularly outlandish or insightful ones. But that is not the whole story. The key way in which artistic “lies” differ from normal lies, and from the “honest lying” of chronic confabulators, is that they have a meaning and resonance beyond their creator. The liar lies on behalf of himself; the artist tell lies on behalf of everyone. If writers have a compulsion to narrate, they compel themselves to find insights about the human condition. Mario Vargas Llosa has written that novels “express a curious truth that can only be expressed in a furtive and veiled fashion, masquerading as what it is not”. Art is a lie whose secret ingredient is truth."
-Ian Leslie ("Are Artists Liars", More Intelligent Life Magazine, 5-24-2011). Image: Marlon Brando in "Apocalypse Now", directed by Francis Ford Coppola, 1979.
Wednesday, May 18, 2011
"Dozens of massive stone pillars arranged into a set of rings, one mashed up against the next. Known as (pronounced Guh-behk-LEE TEH-peh), the site is vaguely reminiscent of Stonehenge, except that Göbekli Tepe was built much earlier and is made not from roughly hewn blocks but from cleanly carved limestone pillars splashed with bas-reliefs of animals—a cavalcade of gazelles, snakes, foxes, scorpions, and ferocious wild boars. The assemblage was built some 11,600 years ago, seven millennia before the Great Pyramid of Giza. It contains the oldest known temple. Indeed, Göbekli Tepe is the oldest known example of monumental architecture—the first structure human beings put together that was bigger and more complicated than a hut. When these pillars were erected, so far as we know, nothing of comparable scale existed in the world.
To Schmidt, the T-shaped pillars are stylized human beings, an idea bolstered by the carved arms that angle from the "shoulders" of some pillars, hands reaching toward their loincloth-draped bellies. The stones face the center of the circle—as at "a meeting or dance," Schmidt says—a representation, perhaps, of a religious ritual. As for the prancing, leaping animals on the figures, he noted that they are mostly deadly creatures: stinging scorpions, charging boars, ferocious lions. The figures represented by the pillars may be guarded by them, or appeasing them, or incorporating them as totems.
Puzzle piled upon puzzle as the excavation continued. For reasons yet unknown, the rings at Göbekli Tepe seem to have regularly lost their power, or at least their charm. Every few decades people buried the pillars and put up new stones—a second, smaller ring, inside the first. Sometimes, later, they installed a third. Then the whole assemblage would be filled in with debris, and an entirely new circle created nearby. The site may have been built, filled in, and built again for centuries.
Bewilderingly, the people at Göbekli Tepe got steadily worse at temple building. The earliest rings are the biggest and most sophisticated, technically and artistically. As time went by, the pillars became smaller, simpler, and were mounted with less and less care. Finally the effort seems to have petered out altogether by 8200 B.C. Göbekli Tepe was all fall and no rise.
As important as what the researchers found was what they did not find: any sign of habitation. Hundreds of people must have been required to carve and erect the pillars, but the site had no water source—the nearest stream was about three miles away. Those workers would have needed homes, but excavations have uncovered no sign of walls, hearths, or houses—no other buildings that Schmidt has interpreted as domestic. They would have had to be fed, but there is also no trace of agriculture. For that matter, Schmidt has found no mess kitchens or cooking fires. It was purely a ceremonial center. If anyone ever lived at this site, they were less its residents than its staff. To judge by the thousands of gazelle and aurochs bones found at the site, the workers seem to have been fed by constant shipments of game, brought from faraway hunts. All of this complex endeavor must have had organizers and overseers, but there is as yet no good evidence of a social hierarchy—no living area reserved for richer people, no tombs filled with elite goods, no sign of some people having better diets than others.
"These people were foragers," Schmidt says, people who gathered plants and hunted wild animals. "Our picture of foragers was always just small, mobile groups, a few dozen people. They cannot make big permanent structures, we thought, because they must move around to follow the resources. They can't maintain a separate class of priests and craft workers, because they can't carry around all the extra supplies to feed them. Then here is Göbekli Tepe, and they obviously did that."
Discovering that hunter-gatherers had constructed Göbekli Tepe was like finding that someone had built a 747 in a basement with an X-Acto knife. "I, my colleagues, we all thought, What? How?" Schmidt said. Paradoxically, Göbekli Tepe appeared to be both a harbinger of the civilized world that was to come and the last, greatest emblem of a nomadic past that was already disappearing. The accomplishment was astonishing, but it was hard to understand how it had been done or what it meant. "In 10 or 15 years," Schmidt predicts, "Göbekli Tepe will be more famous than Stonehenge. And for good reason."
Hovering over Göbekli Tepe is the ghost of V. Gordon Childe. An Australian transplant to Britain, Childe was a flamboyant man, a passionate Marxist who wore plus fours and bow ties and larded his public addresses with noodle-headed paeans to Stalinism. He was also one of the most influential archaeologists of the past century. A great synthesist, Childe wove together his colleagues' disconnected facts into overarching intellectual schemes. The most famous of these arose in the 1920s, when he invented the concept of the Neolithic Revolution.
In today's terms, Childe's views could be summed up like this: Homo sapiens burst onto the scene about 200,000 years ago. For most of the millennia that followed, the species changed remarkably little, with humans living as small bands of wandering foragers. Then came the Neolithic Revolution—"a radical change," Childe said, "fraught with revolutionary consequences for the whole species." In a lightning bolt of inspiration, one part of humankind turned its back on foraging and embraced agriculture. The adoption of farming, Childe argued, brought with it further transformations. To tend their fields, people had to stop wandering and move into permanent villages, where they developed new tools and created pottery. The Neolithic Revolution, in his view, was an explosively important event—"the greatest in human history after the mastery of fire."
Of all the aspects of the revolution, agriculture was the most important. For thousands of years men and women with stone implements had wandered the landscape, cutting off heads of wild grain and taking them home. Even though these people may have tended and protected their grain patches, the plants they watched over were still wild. Wild wheat and barley, unlike their domesticated versions, shatter when they are ripe—the kernels easily break off the plant and fall to the ground, making them next to impossible to harvest when fully ripe. Genetically speaking, true grain agriculture began only when people planted large new areas with mutated plants that did not shatter at maturity, creating fields of domesticated wheat and barley that, so to speak, waited for farmers to harvest them.
Rather than having to comb through the landscape for food, people could now grow as much as they needed and where they needed it, so they could live together in larger groups. Population soared. "It was only after the revolution—but immediately thereafter—that our species really began to multiply at all fast," Childe wrote. In these suddenly more populous societies, ideas could be more readily exchanged, and rates of technological and social innovation soared. Religion and art—the hallmarks of civilization—flourished.
Childe, like most researchers today, believed that the revolution first occurred in the Fertile Crescent, the arc of land that curves northeast from Gaza into southern Turkey and then sweeps southeast into Iraq. Bounded on the south by the harsh Syrian Desert and on the north by the mountains of Turkey, the crescent is a band of temperate climate between inhospitable extremes. Its eastern terminus is the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in southern Iraq—the site of a realm known as Sumer, which dates back to about 4000 B.C. In Childe's day most researchers agreed that Sumer represented the beginning of civilization. Archaeologist Samuel Noah Kramer summed up that view in the 1950s in his book History Begins at Sumer. Yet even before Kramer finished writing, the picture was being revised at the opposite, western end of the Fertile Crescent. In the Levant—the area that today encompasses Israel, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Jordan, and western Syria—archaeologists had discovered settlements dating as far back as 13,000 B.C. Known as Natufian villages (the name comes from the first of these sites to be found), they sprang up across the Levant as the Ice Age was drawing to a close, ushering in a time when the region's climate became relatively warm and wet.
The discovery of the Natufians was the first rock through the window of Childe's Neolithic Revolution. Childe had thought agriculture the necessary spark that led to villages and ignited civilization. Yet although the Natufians lived in permanent settlements of up to several hundred people, they were foragers, not farmers, hunting gazelles and gathering wild rye, barley, and wheat. "It was a big sign that our ideas needed to be revised," says Harvard University archaeologist Ofer Bar-Yosef.
Natufian villages ran into hard times around 10,800 B.C., when regional temperatures abruptly fell some 12°F, part of a mini ice age that lasted 1,200 years and created much drier conditions across the Fertile Crescent. With animal habitat and grain patches shrinking, a number of villages suddenly became too populous for the local food supply. Many people once again became wandering foragers, searching the landscape for remaining food sources.
Some settlements tried to adjust to the more arid conditions. The village of Abu Hureyra, in what is now northern Syria, seemingly tried to cultivate local stands of rye, perhaps replanting them. After examining rye grains from the site, Gordon Hillman of University College London and Andrew Moore of the Rochester Institute of Technology argued in 2000 that some were bigger than their wild equivalents—a possible sign of domestication, because cultivation inevitably increases qualities, such as fruit and seed size, that people find valuable. Bar-Yosef and some other researchers came to believe that nearby sites like Mureybet and Tell Qaramel also had had agriculture.
If these archaeologists were correct, these protovillages provided a new explanation of how complex society began. Childe thought that agriculture came first, that it was the innovation that allowed humans to seize the opportunity of a rich new environment to extend their dominion over the natural world. The Natufian sites in the Levant suggested instead that settlement came first and that farming arose later, as a product of crisis. Confronted with a drying, cooling environment and growing populations, humans in the remaining fecund areas thought, as Bar-Yosef puts it, "If we move, these other folks will exploit our resources. The best way for us to survive is to settle down and exploit our own area." Agriculture followed.
The idea that the Neolithic Revolution was driven by climate change resonated during the 1990s, a time when people were increasingly worried about the effects of modern global warming. It was promoted in countless articles and books and ultimately enshrined in Wikipedia. Yet critics charged that the evidence was weak, not least because Abu Hureyra, Mureybet, and many other sites in northern Syria had been flooded by dams before they could be fully excavated. "You had an entire theory on the origins of human culture essentially based on a half a dozen unusually plump seeds," ancient-grain specialist George Willcox of the National Center for Scientific Research, in France, says. "Isn't it more likely that these grains were puffed during charring or that somebody at Abu Hureyra found some unusual-looking wild rye?"
As the dispute over the Natufians sharpened, Schmidt was carefully working at Göbekli Tepe. And what he was finding would, once again, force many researchers to reassess their ideas.
Anthropologists have assumed that organized religion began as a way of salving the tensions that inevitably arose when hunter-gatherers settled down, became farmers, and developed large societies. Compared to a nomadic band, the society of a village had longer term, more complex aims—storing grain and maintaining permanent homes. Villages would be more likely to accomplish those aims if their members were committed to the collective enterprise. Though primitive religious practices—burying the dead, creating cave art and figurines—had emerged tens of thousands of years earlier, organized religion arose, in this view, only when a common vision of a celestial order was needed to bind together these big, new, fragile groups of humankind. It could also have helped justify the social hierarchy that emerged in a more complex society: Those who rose to power were seen as having a special connection with the gods. Communities of the faithful, united in a common view of the world and their place in it, were more cohesive than ordinary clumps of quarreling people.
Göbekli Tepe, to Schmidt's way of thinking, suggests a reversal of that scenario: The construction of a massive temple by a group of foragers is evidence that organized religion could have come before the rise of agriculture and other aspects of civilization. It suggests that the human impulse to gather for sacred rituals arose as humans shifted from seeing themselves as part of the natural world to seeking mastery over it. When foragers began settling down in villages, they unavoidably created a divide between the human realm—a fixed huddle of homes with hundreds of inhabitants—and the dangerous land beyond the campfire, populated by lethal beasts.
French archaeologist Jacques Cauvin believed this change in consciousness was a "revolution of symbols," a conceptual shift that allowed humans to imagine gods—supernatural beings resembling humans—that existed in a universe beyond the physical world. Schmidt sees Göbekli Tepe as evidence for Cauvin's theory. "The animals were guardians to the spirit world," he says. "The reliefs on the T-shaped pillars illustrate that other world."
Schmidt speculates that foragers living within a hundred-mile radius of Göbekli Tepe created the temple as a holy place to gather and meet, perhaps bringing gifts and tributes to its priests and craftspeople. Some kind of social organization would have been necessary not only to build it but also to deal with the crowds it attracted. One imagines chanting and drumming, the animals on the great pillars seeming to move in flickering torchlight. Surely there were feasts; Schmidt has uncovered stone basins that could have been used for beer. The temple was a spiritual locus, but it may also have been the Neolithic version of Disneyland.
Over time, Schmidt believes, the need to acquire sufficient food for those who worked and gathered for ceremonies at Göbekli Tepe may have led to the intensive cultivation of wild cereals and the creation of some of the first domestic strains. Indeed, scientists now believe that one center of agriculture arose in southern Turkey—well within trekking distance of Göbekli Tepe—at exactly the time the temple was at its height. Today the closest known wild ancestors of modern einkorn wheat are found on the slopes of Karaca Dağ, a mountain just 60 miles northeast of Göbekli Tepe. In other words, the turn to agriculture celebrated by V. Gordon Childe may have been the result of a need that runs deep in the human psyche, a hunger that still moves people today to travel the globe in search of awe-inspiring sights.
Some of the first evidence for plant domestication comes from Nevalı Çori (pronounced nuh-vah-LUH CHO-ree), a settlement in the mountains scarcely 20 miles away. Like Göbekli Tepe, Nevalı Çori came into existence right after the mini ice age, a time archaeologists describe with the unlovely term Pre-pottery Neolithic (PPN). Nevalı Çori is now inundated by a recently created lake that provides electricity and irrigation water for the region. But before the waters shut down research, archaeologists found T-shaped pillars and animal images much like those Schmidt would later uncover at Göbekli Tepe. Similar pillars and images occurred in PPN settlements up to a hundred miles from Göbekli Tepe. Much as one can surmise today that homes with images of the Virgin Mary belong to Christians, Schmidt says, the imagery in these PPN sites indicates a shared religion—a community of faith that surrounded Göbekli Tepe and may have been the world's first truly large religious grouping.
Naturally, some of Schmidt's colleagues disagree with his ideas. The lack of evidence of houses, for instance, doesn't prove that nobody lived at Göbekli Tepe. And increasingly, archaeologists studying the origins of civilization in the Fertile Crescent are suspicious of any attempt to find a one-size-fits-all scenario, to single out one primary trigger. It is more as if the occupants of various archaeological sites were all playing with the building blocks of civilization, looking for combinations that worked. In one place agriculture may have been the foundation; in another, art and religion; and over there, population pressures or social organization and hierarchy. Eventually they all ended up in the same place. Perhaps there is no single path to civilization; instead it was arrived at by different means in different places.
Klaus Schmidt knew almost instantly that he was going to be spending a lot of time at Göbekli Tepe. Now a researcher at the German Archaeological Institute (DAI), Schmidt had spent the autumn of 1994 trundling across southeastern Turkey.
Schmidt emphasizes that further research on Göbekli Tepe may change his current understanding of the site's importance. Even its age is not clear—Schmidt is not certain he has reached the bottom layer. "We come up with two new mysteries for every one that we solve," he says. Still, he has already drawn some conclusions. "Twenty years ago everyone believed civilization was driven by ecological forces," Schmidt says. "I think what we are learning is that civilization is a product of the human mind."
-Charles C. Mann, ( EXCERPT: “Göbekli Tepe, The Birth of Religion,” National Geographic, June 2011, Image: Berthold Steinhilber, 2011 ).
Monday, March 7, 2011
I have stood amid the remains of the ancient Egyptian city of Luxor along the Nile, looking at the statue of the great Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II lying broken on the ground, with Percy Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” running through my head:
“Progressively more land would have had to be cleared. Trees and shrubs would also be cut down for canoe building, firewood, house construction, and for the timbers and ropes needed in the movement and erection of statues. Palm fruits would be eaten, thus reducing regeneration of the palm. Rats, introduced for food, could have fed on the palm fruits, multiplied rapidly and completely prevented palm regeneration. The over exploitation of prolific sea bird resources would have eliminated these for all but the offshore islets. Rats could have helped in this process by eating eggs. The abundant food provided by fishing, sea birds and rats would have encouraged rapid initial human population growth. Unrestrained human population increase would later put pressure on availability of land, leading to disputes and eventually warfare. Non-availability of timber and rope would make it pointless to carve further statues. A disillusionment with the efficacy of the statue religion in providing the wants of the people could lead to the abandonment of this cult. Inadequate canoes would restrict fishing to the inshore waters, leading to further decline in protein supplies. The result could have been general famine, warfare and the collapse of the whole economy, leading to a marked population decline.”
Bahn and Flenley ask. “We believe they are. We consider that Easter Island was a microcosm which provides a model for the whole planet. Like the Earth, Easter Island was an isolated system. The people there believed that they were the only survivors on Earth, all other land having sunk beneath the sea. They carried out for us the experiment of permitting unrestricted population growth, profligate use of resources, destruction of the environment and boundless confidence in their religion to take care of the future. The result was an ecological disaster leading to a population crash. A crash on a similar scale (60 percent of the population) for the planet Earth would lead to the deaths of about 1.8 billion people, roughly 100 times the death toll of the Second World War. Do we have to repeat the experiment on this grand scale? Do we have to be as cynical as Henry Ford and say ‘History is bunk’? Would it not be more sensible to learn the lesson of Easter Island history, and apply it to the Earth Island on which we live?"