Laputan Logic
Friday, October 24, 2003
  Back again Yes there's movement at the station once again finally.

I'm moving Laputan Logic over to a new completely dog-food-compliant website which is located at All updates will occur there for now on, so please update your bookmarks and if you have one of those websites that is kind enough to link to me, please update your blogroll as well.

I must say I'm pretty happy with the new format which I hope will enable me to update more frequently but at the same time keep the stuff I have spent more time working on from being pushed too far down the page. I must confess I have been struggling to find the right mix with the blog format. I think this should be a major improvement and I hope you will like it as well.

Here's a sample of why you should be heading there RIGHT NOW:

A Roman in the Indies

In 550 AD, during the reign of Emperor Justinian, a monk who was cloistered at a remote monastery in the Sinai desert wrote a curious book about the topology of the earth and the universe. In the book the monk, who is know to posterity as Cosmas Indicopleustes, propounded a surprising theory that the world was not spherical as believed by the ancients but, on the contrary, was flat and surrounded by four walls which stretched up to the heavens and formed a curved lid.

Scholarship has not been terribly kind to the work of Cosmas Indicopleustes. Even in his own time he had to staunchly defend his theory against strong criticism. By his own admission he was not well educated in the "learning of schools" and his unfortunate practice of distorting passages of scripture in order to support his argument led to his work being largely dismissed by his contemporaries and then disregarded by later generations. While we too can easily dismiss his eccentric notions which seem to be more the product of pious daydreaming than any kind of scientific investigation or empirical observation, on closer inspection there is another rather more interesting side to Cosmas.

Thirty years before writing his book, Cosmas had led a life very different from the serene austerity of a desert cloister. Cosmas Indicopleustes actually means "Cosmas the India Voyager" and back then the monk was a merchant who had traveled extensively around the coasts of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. Buried deep under ten volumes of questionable scholarship which comprises the bulk of his Topology we find a surprising and particularly lucid account of his travels to these countries. This eleventh volume bears little relationship to the earlier parts of the book and it is thought to have been excerpted from another larger work of his on geography which has, sadly, been lost.

While its known that the Roman world engaged in trade with the Indian subcontinent, Cosmas offers us one of the only authentic eyewitness accounts. A close reading indicates that he had considerable local knowledge of the regions he describes and there is little doubt that he actually visited these places rather than merely relating second-hand information.

He begins his geographical treatise by describing the unusual flora and fauna of Africa and Asia. Here are some excerpts:

This animal is called the rhinoceros from having horns upon his snout. When he is walking his horns are mobile, but when he sees anything to move his rage, he erects them and they become so rigid that they are strong enough to tear up even trees by the root, those especially which come right before him. His eyes are placed low down near his jaws. He is altogether a fearful animal, and he is somehow hostile to the elephant. His feet and his skin, however, closely resemble those of the elephant. His skin, when dried, is four fingers thick, and this some people put, instead of iron, in the plough, and with it plough the land.

The Ethiopians in their own dialect call the rhinoceros Arou, or Harisi, aspirating the alpha of the latter word, and adding risi. By the arou they designate the beast as such, and by arisi, ploughing, giving him this name from his shape about the nostrils, and also from the use to which his hide is turned. In Ethiopia I once saw a live rhinoceros while I was standing at a far distance, and I saw also the skin of a dead one stuffed with chaff, standing in the royal palace, and so I have been able to draw him accurately.

The accuracy of Cosmas' drawing of the rhinoceros leaves a fair bit to be desired but apparently the word arou that he gives as the name of the two-horned rhinoceros is still used in Ethiopia to this day.

Wednesday, October 08, 2003
  Dog chow for brekky As I implied in an earlier post I have been working on software that will enable me to manage my own website. This software is part of a suite of products that we're developing at Lagado which covers things like content management and site maintenance and goes all the way through to publishing to web or print.

So it's tad ironic that Laputan Logic has up to now been maintained using someone else's code. I'm not complaining about Blogger which I think has improved dramatically of late1 but I've been thinking it's high time that I start to practice what I preach or, to borrow some industry parlance, its time to start eating my own dog food.

New developments to follow shortly...

1 - okay, okay, I'll admit it was pretty rugged before that. 
Thursday, October 02, 2003
  Update on the Third Buddha It now appears that Japanese archaeologists are also on the case to find the missing third Bamiyan Buddha. This looks like it's heating up to be a race to see who finds it first.

My bet is that the only thing left to find will be its stone foundations.

Japanese team to probe Bamiyan

A team of Japanese experts departed Saturday afternoon for Afghanistan on a mission to search for an image of a supine Buddha in Bamiyan.

The team will attempt to confirm the existence of the supine Buddha that is rumored to be located somewhere in the region by using high-tech devices such as radar capable of locating buried artifacts.

Xuanzang (602-664), a Chinese Buddhist monk, described the artifact in his book "The Records of the Western Regions of the Great Tang Dynasty": "Inside a Buddhist temple located about 10 kilometers from the palace, there is a statue of Buddha in a state of passing into nirvana. The image of the supine Buddha is as long as 300 meters."

He also wrote in his book: "There is a stone image of a standing Buddha carved into the mountainside northeast of the palace. Shining in gold, and adorned with jewelry, the statue stands about 45 meters tall. To the east of the temple, stands another statue of a 30-meter-tall Buddha made with brass."

The statues he described in the book are believed to be the two Buddha statues that were destroyed by Afghanistan's former Taliban rulers in March 2001.

The research team considers that the description of the statues in Xuanzang's book is highly accurate, and the information concerning the existence of a supine Buddha is credible. It is believed that the palace and the temple are buried underground. No fact-finding probes have been conducted of the area due to the country's protracted conflicts.

The project to probe for the image of the supine Buddha was commissioned by Japan's National Research Institute for Cultural Properties. Eight researchers mainly from the institute will examine the area from Monday through Oct. 22.

The research team will use a ground-penetrating radar to determine the location of buried items and hollows under the ground, allowing the team to determine the size of the entire archaeological site before excavating it.

The radar emits electromagnetic waves into the ground using an antenna that can detect energy emitted from buried objects.

Researchers will use the radar at about 50-meter intervals over a 1.3-kilometer area from east to west, as well as 300 meters north-south of the two destroyed statues.

The image of the supine Buddha is believed to be located between the two statues.

"I don't think the image of the supine is as big as Xuanzang described in his book. It will probably be about 30 meters long, not 300 meters as he described," said Kazuya Yamauchi, the team's chief researcher.

Yamauchi said if the statue was as long as 300 meters, it should already have been discovered.

"I'm worried about whether the radar can detect the statue underground if it's not that big," he said.

The possibility that the image of the supine Buddha remains in the same condition as Xuanzang saw it in the 7th century is low, and it is highly probable that even if it is discovered, it will be damaged to some extent.

"If we succeed in discovering traces of the site, it will definitely be the key to finding out more about the former Bamiyan kingdom," Yamauchi said.

"The statue of the image of the supine Buddha will attract international attention, and it's a dream for those engaged in archaeology. I hope the Japanese research team can discover it," said Kosaku Yamada, professor emeritus of Wako University...
...before the French do. 
Wednesday, October 01, 2003
  Blogger Trick Yes, yes, we all know that Moveable Type is the way to go etc. although to be frank I'm telling you right now I'm not going to install any software to manage my blog that I didn't write myself. This is something that is definitely on the cards for some day soon but in the meantime for those few people who are so uncool as to be still using the venerable Blogger I thought I'd share a little thing that I learnt the other day which may be of interest...

For quite a while now I have been running in the right hand column a list of the headings for the posts that appear on the page (see the "Heads Up" list). This I think is a convenient indicator for people to quickly see what has changed or to spot something they may have missed. Any way I like it and all the groovy MT blogs have a "recent posts" list a bit like this by default.

Originally I implemented this feature in Javascript and it used the DOM (Document Object Model) to traverse the HTML tree in order to locate each heading, if present, or the first sentence of the post if not.

since then, however, the New version Blogger has implemented titles for posts as a built-in feature. To enable it go to:

Settings > Formatting > Show Title Field

Once enabled a new field labelled title appears in the post editor. To make it appear in your posts you need to add something like following to your template:


       ... heading stuff goes here


       ... body stuff goes here


So now you have titles for your posts and that's all well and good but one thing I didn't realise until now was that more than one of these <Blogger> blocks is allowed to appear within in a template. This enabled me to create a list of headings for my right column simply by adding the following to my template:

    <Blogger><BlogItemTitle><div><a href="#<$BlogItemNumber$>"><$BlogItemTitle$></a></div></BlogItemTitle></Blogger>

The best thing about this is that I can now pull out a whole bunch of Javascript that I no longer have to maintain. The page should load somewhat faster as well.

Hopefully someone else will find this of use. 

Used to express excited approval.

noun: A cry of “olé.”

etymology: Spanish, perhaps from Arabic wa-llh, by God! (used as an expression of admiration) : wa-, and; see w in Appendix II + allh, God; see Allah.

-- American Heritage Dictionary

When I visited Spain a few years ago, the place that I loved the most of all was Cordoba.

This is a city that apart from its relaxed atmosphere, its food and its flamenco exudes history from every corner and leaves you with the impression that it's built a bit like a layer-cake made up of different historical epochs, one on top of each other, each one just as remarkable and interesting as the next.

The notion is best exemplified by the magnificent of architecture of the Mesquita, a beautiful former mosque that was once the largest of its kind in the world. This building recalls a time when Cordoba was the capital of the Caliphate of Cordoba, a western arab emirate that had broken free from the rule of the Abbasid Caliphate based in Bagdad.

In tenth century Cordoba it was said:

When Allah was furnishing the empty shell of the world, al-Andalus petitioned for five blessings:
  • clear skies,
  • a beautiful sea bountifully stocked with fish,
  • trees hung with fruit,
  • fair women,
  • and a just government.

Allah granted all but the last wish, reasoning that if all the others were given a proper government, al-Andalus might rival Paradise.

A little history is in order if you want to fully understand the amazing scope of the Mezquita. The original Mosque was built in 785-787, soon after the Moorish conquest of 711. Abd al Rahman I wanted his mosque built quickly, so they used recycled materials from the former Visigoth church and ancient roman temple formerly on the site - thus many of the more than 850 columns are of slightly different heights or materials, and they compensated by slightly burying them or raising them on pedestals to make the columns uniform. The columns support the amazing double arches, which dominate the inside of the mosque. The bottom arches connect the columns, while the top arches support the roof. The red-and-white color is a result of the building materials used - sandstone (white) and brick (red). The brick was used for two reasons - not only is it cheaper than stone, but it also allows for some give and movement in the case of earthquakes. Later, the Mosque was expanded several times by Moorish leaders, each time to accommodate the growing Moslem population of Córdoba. The 10th Century expansion included the building of the Mihrab, the magnificent prayer niche whose sea-shell shape provided microphone-like acoustics. During that renovation, the powers-that-be wanted to show their wealth and power by making arches of pure sandstone, and just painting them with the brick pattern so they would match - a bad move, since this was the area of the mosque that was most damaged by earthquakes in later centuries.

The final major renovation of the Mosque was the most destructive, but it also lead to its current role - Roman Catholic Church. After the Christians re-conquered Córdoba, a small Christian chapel was built in the Mudéjar style in 1371. But the Bishop of Córdoba wasn't satisfied, and he wanted to show the full strength and glory of the Church, so he petitioned to Charles II (against the wished of many other church leaders in Córdoba) for permission to build a cathedral within the walls of the Mezquita. Having never seen the Mezquita for himself, Charles said "sure, the church is strong, go for it" (or something like that) and allowed the bishop to knock out dozens of arches smack dab in the middle of mosque and start construction on the cathedral. A few years later, when Charles II traveled to Córdoba to marry Isabella, he saw the Mezquita with his own eyes for the first time. He realized his mistake in letting the bishop cajole him into allowing the destruction of such amazing architecture, but it was far too late. It took 200 years (and therefore encompasses a wide variety of architectural styles, from Renaissance to Baroque) but the cathedral-within-a-mosque turned out pretty good, in the end. Although it is a shame that so much was destroyed, the exquisite decorations in wood, marble, and gold are simply breathtaking.


...or really really trashy if you want my honest opinion.

Charles himself had complained that the conversion of the Mesquita to a baroque cathedral had destroyed "something unique to build something commonplace.''. Oh well, just another layer to Cordoba's layer-cake, I suppose.

Any way, it shouldn't be too surprising to discover that buried under the layers of Christian and Moorish architecture that Roman Cordoba was not just some second-rate provincial capital either but was in fact an imperial city of great prestige and pretention:

Discovered: Europe's biggest amphitheatre after the Coliseum

Archaeologists in the Spanish city of Cordoba have uncovered beneath the university's old veterinary faculty Europe's biggest Roman amphitheatre after the Coliseum.

The find, considered to be "of transcendental importance", dates from the first century AD, when Corduba, as it was then known, was the provincial capital of Betica, today's Andalusia, in imperial Hispania. "We initially thought it was a circus, the circular arena the Romans used for horse races and chariot rides," says Desiderio Vaquerizo, professor of architecture at Cordoba University. "But we discovered it was an immense oval amphitheatre - 178m by 145m and up to 20m high - that would have been used for gladiatorial contests and other bloodthirsty spectacles." The find reveals Cordoba as an imperial city built in Rome's image.

"The amphitheatre shows that Cordoba symbolised Rome's authority in the west: it was the setting for imperial ceremonies, the place where the emperor showed himself to the plebs and displayed all his power and authority before up to 50,000 spectators," Mr Vaquerizo told The Independent yesterday.

Less than one tenth of the arena is visible, but archaeologists plan to uncover one sixth of it - 2,000 square metres - in coming years.

The rest of the vast stadium - bigger, more sophisticated and elegant, than even that at Italica outside Seville - is likely to remain buried under buildings piled on over the centuries.

In bloodsoaked contests popular between the first and fourth centuries, gladiators were set against each other, or against lions or other wild beasts, or - with the huge space flooded with water - engaged in gigantic naval battles.

Archaeologists have found a plaque marking the seats reserved for a prominent Cordoban family honoured by imperial Rome. They also found 20 carved gravestones of fallen gladiators, the biggest such collection outside Rome, prompting experts to conclude that Cordoba was an important training school for gladiators. "Combatants were between 20 and 25, and their comrades, their concubines or their families carved epigraphs on stone tablets laid on the graves where the fallen were buried inside the amphitheatre," Mr Vaquerizo explained.

The inscriptions record the category of the gladiator, his victories, the laurels and prizes awarded, and the age he died.

Cordoba's amphitheatre was abandoned in the 4th century, when Emperor Constantine, influenced by Christianity, banned the murderous sports as immoral.

Then in 711, Muslims originally from Damascus occupied Cordoba and for the next 200 years built an entire neighbourhood upon the handsome curved terraces, plundering the stonework for buildings of their own. "The discovery is of transcendental importance for the city. It recovers the importance of Roman games, a key aspect of popular daily life," Mr Vaquerizo said. It shows the continuity of mass spectator sports from the Roman empire to today's fiestas and bullfights.

"The bullring originated in an amphitheatre; it is the historical thread linking today's popular fiestas to ancient times."

The university and the city authorities plan to turn the site into an archaeological park.


That last remark is so true, the other theme of Cordoba (and of the former Roman provinces generally) is one of continuity. This point was really brought home to me when I visited the ancient city of Nimes in Southern France, home to the best preserved Roman coliseum in the world.

Today it serves as a bull-ring

  13th Century tablet could lead to lost archives of Ramses II The discovery of a stone tablet detailing diplomatic ties between the ancient Egyptians and Hittites in the 13th Century BC could be the key to the lost archives of Ramses II, according to archaeologists.

Discovered at Qantir 120 kilometres north-east of Cairo, the tablet dates back to the time of the ancient Egyptian pharaoh, Ramses II (1298-1235 BC) and confirms his capital, Pi-Ramses, was in the Nile Delta.

"Its the first time that such a written record has been found in the capital of Ramses II, which confirms the location of Pi-Ramses," Mohammad Abdul Aksud, director of antiquities in the Delta region told AFP.

Although small and badly preserved, the tablet takes the form of an 11-line letter sent by the central Anatolian Hittite court to that of Ramses II, Mr Aksud said, which "could lead us to the lost archives of Ramses II".

It was found by a team of German archaeologists, lead by Egyptologist Edgar Pusch, secretary-general of Egypt's Supreme Council for Antiquities, Zahi Hawass told AFP.

It dates from shortly after the Egyptian and Hittite empires made peace in 1278 after years of war, Mr Hawass added.

The tablet is written in cuneiform script, invented in about 3,300 BC by the Sumerians and used throughout the Middle East until the first century AD.

Quoting Pusch, Hawass told AFP it was comparable to another tablet written in cuneiform found in Turkey and others found at Tell Al-Amarna, in southern Egypt.

Tell Al-Amarna was capital during the time of Akhenaton (1372-1354 BC), remembered in history for having switched his kingdom to monotheism with the worship of the one sun god, Aton.

The tablets found there show the earliest diplomatic correspondence ever discovered.

The Qantir tablet may be followed by the discovery of a temple in the same region, where Ramses II built his capital.

Ramses II married a Hittite princess to shore up peace with the central Anatolian empire, so he could concentrate on the threat posed in Mesopotamia, where the Assyrian empire was bent on conquest. [link

Thursday, September 25, 2003
  The Complete "An Interview with Carver Mead" Back in November I blogged about an interview with Carver Mead conducted by the American Spectator.

As I have mentioned before, Mead makes some pretty interesting points about the sorry state of obscurantism that typifies our current interpretation of quantum mechanics. This is something he blames largely on Neils Bohr and the Copenhagen school. Einstein was never happy with the Copenhagen formulation which he thought represented an incomplete understanding of nature at the quantum scale.

Mead agrees with Einstein and goes on to claim that a lot of the confusion and counter-intuitiveness of quantum mechanics would go away if we stopped imagining elementary particles like electrons and protons as tiny points and instead saw them as waves with a boundary. Of course it helps to have already had a stellar career in solid-state physics under your belt before you start kicking around scientific giants of the likes of Neils Bohr.

Any way, this post has since generated quite a lot of interest and it is still a major source of Google referrals to this site. But some time after blogging this, the American Spectator took the article offline and unforgivably broke my link so I tried to cobble together enough of the interview from the bits and pieces I could find on the net. The result was less than perfect and had large chunks missing from it.

But you'll be happy to know that I didn't give up. Using my finely honed googling skills and a strong commitment to web archaeology, I have finally been able to reconstruct the complete interview from the digital equivalent of a collection of smashed cuneiform tablets and some hurriedly copied manuscripts (some in Greek). The result is undoubtedly the most authorative version of the interview extant anywhere on the web today!

So without further adieu, please allow me to present for your reading pleasure the complete and definitive "An Interview with Carver Mead". Enjoy.

Once upon a time, Caltech's Richard Feyman, Nobel Laureate leader of the last great generation of physicists, threw down the gauntlet to anyone rash enough to doubt the fundamental weirdness, the quark-bosonmuon-strewn amusement park landscape of late 20th century quantum physics. "Things on a very small scale behave like nothing you have direct experience about. They do not behave like waves. They do not behave like particles… or like anything you have ever seen get used to it." Carver Mead never has.

As Gordon and Betty Moore Professor of Engineering and Applied Science at Caltech, Mead was Feynman’s student, colleague and collaborator, as well as Silicon Valley’s physicist in residence and leading intellectual. He picks up Feynman’s challenge in a new book, Collective Electrodynamics (MIT Press), declaring that a physics that does not make sense, that defies human intuition, is obscurantist: It balks thought and intellectual progress. It blocks the light of the age.

In a career of nearly half a century that has made him the microchip industry’s most influential and creative academic, Mead is best known as inventor of a crucial high frequency transistor, author of dominant chip design techniques, progenitor of the movement toward dynamically programmable logic chips, and most recently developer of radical advances in machine-aided perception. In 1999, he won the half-million dollar MIT-Lemelson award for innovation. But any list of accomplishments underrates Mead’s role as the most important practical scientist of the late twentieth century. He is now emerging as the boldest theoretical physicist of the twenty-first.

Perhaps more than any other man, Mead has spent his professional life working on intimate terms with matter at the atomic and subatomic levels. He spent ten years exploring the intricacies of quantum tunneling and tunnel diodes, the first electronic devices based on an exclusively quantum process. Unlike most analysts, Mead does not regard tunneling as a mysterious movement of particles through impenetrable barriers. He sees it as an intelligible wave phenomenon, resembling on the microcosmic level the movement of radio waves through walls.

While pursuing these researches, Mead responded to a query from Intel-founder Gordon Moore about the possible size of microelectronic devices. Mead provided the empirical analysis behind Moore’s law (predicting a doubling of computer power every 18 months). When single chips held only tens of transistors, he showed that in due course tens of millions would be feasible. In collaboration with Feynman, Mead also developed a definitive course on the physics of computation that has yielded a minor industry of books and tapes and imitators. After a year in Coblenz with Nobel-prize winning physicist-turned-biologist Max Delbruck, Mead pursued a lifelong multi-disciplinary interest in the physics of neural systems. His researches on the human retina led to his invention of the revolutionary Foveon camera that achieves resolution and verisimilitude in cheap silicon superior to the best silver halide films. His study of the cochlea has informed the creation of unique directional hearing aids, produced by Sonic Innovations of Salt Lake City.

Now, in the opening years of the new millennium, Mead believes that it is time to clear up the philosophical and practical confusion of contemporary physics. He revisits the debate between the Copenhagen interpreters of quantum physics—Niels Bohr, Alfred Heisenberg, John von Neumann, Richard Feynman—and the skeptics, principally Albert Einstein and Erwin Schrodinger. Pointing to a series of experiments from the world of microelectronic and photonic technology that still lay in the future when Bohr prevailed in his debates with Einstein, Mead rectifies an injustice and awards a posthumous victory to Einstein.

During a lifetime in the trenches of the semiconductor industry, Mead developed a growing uneasiness about the “standard model” that supposedly governed his field. Mead did not see his electrons and photons as random or incoherent. He regarded the concept of the “point particle” as an otiose legacy from the classical era. Early photodetectors or Geiger counters may have provided both visual and auditory testimony that photons were point particles, but the particulate click coarsely concealed a measurable wave.

Central to Mead’s rescue project are a series of discoveries inconsistent with the prevailing conceptions of quantum mechanics. One was the laser. As late as 1956, Bohr and Von Neumann, the paragons of quantum theory, arrived at the Columbia laboratories of Charles Townes, who was in the process of describing his invention. With the transistor, the laser is one of the most important inventions of the twentieth century. Designed into every CD player and long distance telephone connection, lasers today are manufactured by the billions. At the heart of laser action is perfect alignment of the crests and troughs of myriad waves of light. Their location and momentum must be theoretically knowable. But this violates the holiest canon of Copenhagen theory: Heisenberg Uncertainty. Bohr and Von Neumann proved to be true believers in Heisenberg’s rule. Both denied that the laser was possible. When Townes showed them one in operation, they retreated artfully.

In Collective Electrodynamics, Mead cites nine other experimental discoveries, from superconductive currents to masers, to Bose-Einstein condensates predicted by Einstein but not demonstrated until 1995. These discoveries of large-scale, coherent quantum phenomena all occurred after Bohr’s triumph over Einstein.

Mead does not banish the mystery from science. He declares that physics is vastly farther away from a fundamental grasp of nature than many of the current exponents of a grand unified theory imagine. But he believes he can explain the nature of the famous mysteries of quantum science, from the two slit experiment where “particles” go through two holes at once to the perplexities of “entanglement,” where action on a quantum entity at one point of the universe can affect entities at other remote points at speeds faster than the speed of light. In his new interpretation, quantum physics is united with electromagnetism and the venerable Maxwell Equations are found to be dispensable.

But Mead does not bow humbly before all of Einstein’s conceptions. He dismisses the photoelectric effect as an artifact of early twentieth century apparatus. He also believes that General Relativity conceals more than it illuminates about gravitation. “All the important details are smoothed over by Einstein’s curvature of space time.” Gravity remains shrouded in mystery.

We arrived at Mead’s house in Woodside, high above Silicon Valley. It is a modernistic aerie with hardwood floors and cathedral ceilings, perched on the precipitous slopes of the Los Altos Hills. The dense stands of surrounding redwood trees, concealing the valley below, make for a cathedral outside as well as in. We found him eager to discuss his theories and his Promethean book. A short lithe man with a small beard and a taste for undulatory rainbow shirts, Carver speaks with quiet authority, quirky humor and a gentle but inexorable persuasiveness. He conveys the sense that during his fifty years of immersion in technology he has made electrons and photons his friends, and he knows they would never indulge in the outrageous, irrational behavior ascribed to them by physicists. In the process, he is also implicitly coming to the defense of reason, science, history, culture, human dignity and free will.

You open your new book with a dramatic statement. “It is my firm belief that the last seven decades of the twentieth century will be characterized in history as the dark ages of theoretical physics.” Can you explain that?

Modern science began with mechanics, and in some ways we are still captive to its ideas and images. Newton’s success in deriving the planetary orbits from his law of gravitation became the paradigm. To Niels Bohr early in this century, when the quantum theory was invented, the atom was thought of as a miniature solar system, with a nucleus as the sun and electrons as planets. Then, out of the struggle to understand the atom came quantum mechanics. Bohr gathered the early contributors into a clan in Copenhagen, and he encouraged them to believe that they were developing the ultimate theory of nature. He argued vigorously against any opponents.

Among whom was Albert Einstein. He had already scored a triumph with relativity theory by that time. But the history books tell us that he lost the argument with Bohr. Can you explain their dispute? And why do you now award the verdict to Einstein?

Bohr insisted that the laws of physics, at the most fundamental level, are statistical in nature. Physical reality consisted at its base of statistical probabilities governed by Heisenberg uncertainty. Bohr saw these uncertainties as intrinsic to reality itself, and he and his followers enshrined that belief in what came to be known as the “Copenhagen interpretation” of quantum theory. By contrast Einstein famously argued that “the Lord does not throw dice.” He believed that electrons were real and he wrote, in 1949, that he was “firmly convinced that the essentially statistical character of contemporary quantum theory is solely to be ascribed to the fact that this [theory] operates with an incomplete description of physical systems.”

So how did Bohr and the others come to think of nature as ultimately random, discontinuous?

They took the limitations of their cumbersome experiments as evidence for the nature of reality. Using the crude equipment of the early twentieth century, it’s amazing that physicists could get any significant results at all. So I have enormous respect for the people who were able to discern anything profound from these experiments. If they had known about the coherent quantum systems that are commonplace today, they wouldn’t have thought of using statistics as the foundation for physics.

Statistics in this sense means what?

That an electron is either here, or there, or some other place, and all you can know is the probability that it is in one place or the other. Bohr ended up saying that the only statements you can make at the fundamental level are statistical. You cannot grasp the reality itself, only probabilities related to it. They really, really, wanted to have the last word, and the only word they had was statistical. So they made their limitations the last word, saying, “Okay, the only knowledge that there is down deep is statistical knowledge. That’s all we can know.” That’s a very dangerous thing to say. It is always possible to gain a deeper understanding as time progresses. But they carried the day.

What about Schrodinger? Back in the 1920s, didn’t he say something like what you are saying now?

That’s right. He felt that he could develop a wave theory of the electron that could explain how all this worked. But Bohr was more into “principles”: the uncertainty principle, the exclusion principle—this, that, and the other. He was very much into the postulational mode. But Schrodinger thought that a continuum theory of the electron could be successful. So he went to Copenhagen to work with Bohr. He felt that it was a matter of getting a “political” consensus; you know, this is a historic thing that is happening. But whenever Schrodinger tried to talk, Bohr would raise his voice and bring up all these counter-examples. Basically he shouted him down.

It sounds like vanity.

Of course. It was a period when physics was full of huge egos. It was still going on when I got into the field. But it doesn’t make sense, and it isn’t the way science works in the long run. It may forestall people from doing sensible work for a long time, which is what happened. They ended up derailing conceptual physics for the next 70 years.

Let’s take a break—tell us a little about how you came to physics.

I was fortunate enough to get introduced to electricity at an early age, and I fell in love with it. By the age of six I was comfortable with all kinds of electrical phenomena.

So practice took precedence over theory?

Yes, but I wanted the theory to understand it. And that took time. But I never lost that intuitive grasp from having actually worked with it.

Tell us about your early life.

I was born in 1934 and grew up in California. We lived in a place called Big Creek, halfway between Yosemite and King’s Canyon, up in the Sierra country. A lot of snow falls on those mountains during the winter, and in the spring it runs off. Around the turn of the century they built a series of dams and power plants up there, the Big Creek Project. As late as World War II, it supplied about 90 percent of the power for Los Angeles. It was a marvelous way to grow up because I learned about electricity just by being around it. It was everywhere. My father worked in the power plant, and he taught me as best he could.

You lived near the plant?

We had these places called camps, which were a group of homes around the power plant. Originally they were tents for the construction workers. When I was 12, a guy who was a ham radio operator moved in. My uncle had gotten me started on radio, but then he went off to the war—he worked in Britain on the radar project. Anyway, this guy had a background in electronics and he was willing to teach me what he knew. That was just as the war was ending, so there was all this war-surplus electronics on the market, dirt cheap. With the little bits of money that a kid could earn, I could buy piles of electronics, and try to figure out what they were and why they were that way and how I could modify them. That was how I got my start—you could afford to do experiments, because the stuff was so cheap. You could build up equipment and try things, just to see what happened.

Where did you go to school?

Between two of the camps, way back in the woods, we had a little school. Twenty kids for all eight grades. There was one teacher through 4th grade and then it became a two-teacher school. My grandmother lived in Fresno in the Central Valley. They had a better high school, so I lived with her and went to high school there. Then I interviewed to go to Caltech and I remained there for my whole career.

What about the power plant?

Oh, there were things in the power plant that were just awesome. In the generator there’s this big wheel going around with these coils of wire, and this cascading water coming down two thousand feet through these great pipes and rushing through turbines. On the other side, there are these one-inch diameter cables, going down to Los Angeles. As a kid, I would watch them bring a new unit on line. The generator has huge inertia, but almost no friction, so you have to be really careful. You let a little water through and the rotation accelerates. Its speed comes up and up, governed by this instrument called a syncroscope that looks at the relative phase [timing of the troughs and crests of the wave of electricity] on the grid, and the voltage from the generator. Nobody ever gets those phases exactly right, but if you miss by much, the whole power plant goes boom—the difference in phase is enough to shear off the huge bolts, six inches in diameter, that bind the generator to the floor of the power plant. So electricity may be invisible, but it is powerful stuff; it’s not invisible really. It’s just invisible in the way we normally look at things.

So early on you knew that electrons were real.

The electrons were real, the voltages were real, the phase of the sine-wave was real, the current was real. These were real things. They were just as real as the water going down through the pipes. You listen to the technology, and you know that these things are totally real, and totally intuitive.

But they’re also waves, right? Then what are they waving in?

It’s interesting, isn’t it? That has hung people up ever since the time of Clerk Maxwell, and it’s the missing piece of intuition that we need to develop in young people. The electron isn’t the disturbance of something else. It is its own thing. The electron is the thing that’s wiggling, and the wave is the electron. It is its own medium. You don’t need something for it to be in, because if you did it would be buffeted about and all messed up. So the only pure way to have a wave is for it to be its own medium. The electron isn’t something that has a fixed physical shape. Waves propagate outwards, and they can be large or small. That’s what waves do.

So how big is an electron?

It expands to fit the container it’s in. That may be a positive charge that’ s attracting it—a hydrogen atom—or the walls of a conductor. A piece of wire is a container for electrons. They simply fill out the piece of wire. That’s what all waves do. If you try to gather them into a smaller space, the energy level goes up. That’s what these Copenhagen guys call the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. But there’s nothing uncertain about it. It’s just a property of waves. Confine them, and you have more wavelengths in a given space, and that means a higher frequency and higher energy. But a quantum wave also tends to go to the state of lowest energy, so it will expand as long as you let it. You can make an electron that’s ten feet across, there’s no problem with that. It’s its own medium, right? And it gets to be less and less dense as you let it expand. People regularly do experiments with neutrons that are a foot across.

A ten-foot electron! Amazing!

It could be a mile. The electrons in my superconducting magnet are that long.

A mile-long electron! That alters our picture of the world—most people’s minds think about atoms as tiny solar systems.

Right, that’s what I was brought up on—this little grain of something. Now it’s true that if you take a proton and you put it together with an electron, you get something that we call a hydrogen atom. But what that is, in fact, is a self-consistent solution of the two waves interacting with each other. They want to be close together because one’s positive and the other is negative, and when they get closer that makes the energy lower. But if they get too close they wiggle too much and that makes the energy higher. So there’s a place where they are just right, and that’s what determines the size of the hydrogen atom. And that optimum is a self-consistent solution of the Schrodinger equation.

So much for the idea of the quantum world as microscopic...

Bohr and his followers had this notion that you got to the quantum world only when things were very small. Well that’s because the only thing they knew that exhibited quantum characteristics was an atom. They said, “Well, an atom is so small, we’ll never see one.” Now, it turns out, people have put atoms in cavitie,s and you can see a single atom perfectly well. That experiment has been done many times now. In fact, if you do it properly, you can make atoms totally coherent. Do that with a lot of them, and you get Bose-Einstein condensate—a bunch of atoms in phase that act like one big matter wave. It was first demonstrated in 1995 by Eric Cornell and Carl Wieman in Colorado.

The early experiments that dealt with things like black-body radiation and light passing though double slits—couldn’t they detect those effects?

The experiments on which the conceptual foundations of quantum mechanics were based were extremely crude by modern standards. The detectors available—Geiger counters, cloud chambers, and photographic film—had a high degree of randomness built in, and, by their very nature, could register only statistical results. The atomic sources were similarly constrained—large ensembles of atoms, with no mechanism for achieving phase coherence. Understandably, the experiments that could be imagined were all of a statistical sort.

The most famous of those experiments involved a “single” photon that somehow succeeded in going through two holes at once.

That uses a point-particle model for the “photon”—a little bullet carrying energy. If you define the problem this way, of course, you get nonsense. Garbage in, garbage out.

So how should we think of a photon?

John Cramer at the University of Washington was one of the first to describe it as a transaction between two atoms. At the end of his book, Schrodinger’s Kittens and the Search for Reality, John Gribbin gives a nice overview of Cramer’s interpretation and says that “with any luck at all it will supercede the Copenhagen interpretation as the standard way of thinking about quantum physics for the next generation of scientists.”

So that transaction is itself a wave?

The field that describes that transaction is a wave, that’s right.

So how about “Schrodinger’s cat”—the thought experiment he proposed to illustrate the impossible conundrum of quantum theory. The cat is in a closed box, with a quantum-based trigger that either does or does not release poison. Gribbin summarizes the standard Copenhagen view of the situation: “Neither of the two possibilities has any reality unless it is observed.” So is the cat dead or alive? The standard quantum-theory answer—we’re quoting Gribbin again—would be: “The cat has neither been killed nor not been killed until we look inside the box to see what happened.” In other words, reality is observer-dependent.

That is probably the biggest misconception that has come out of the Copenhagen view. The idea that the observation of some event makes it somehow more “real” became entrenched in the philosophy of quantum mechanics, and, like the other misconceptions, is said to be confirmed by experiment. Even the slightest reflection will show how silly it is. An observer is an assembly of atoms. What is different about the observer’s atoms from those of any other object? What if the data are taken by computer? Do the events not happen until the scientist gets home from vacation and looks at the printout? It is ludicrous!

Gribbin goes on to describe an experiment with entangled photons, which shows quantum entities affecting one another at long distances with no passage of time. He says this “proves that there is no underlying reality to the world.”

That is the experiment proposed by John Bell, the late Irish physicist, and done in its most definitive form by John Clauser—I’m currently in discussion with him about his fascinating findings. But the results say nothing whatsoever about what is and is not real.

In your book, you ambitiously redraw the boundaries of physics. In the “dark age” of the last 70 years, you say, a fundamental distinction was drawn between classical physics—mechanics, electricity and magnetism—and modern physics, consisting of quantum theory and relativity. Bohr connected the two with his “correspondence principle.” What was that?

That was one of the big mistakes they made. They wanted the quantum domain to approximate the classical Newtonian world. And it simply doesn’t. But Bohr believed that if you picked a limit where there are enough wavelengths, everything would average out to the same result you get from Newtonian physics.

So by “correspondence,” he meant a correspondence between the quantum world and the larger Newtonian world?

Yes. And that was the wrong assumption. When you get to coherent quantum systems, they don’t have a Newtonian limit at all. Coherent quantum systems “scale” in a way that is entirely different.

You propose dividing physics into “coherent” and “incoherent” systems. What’ s the difference?

Okay. The quantum world is a world of waves, not particles. So we have to think of electron waves and proton waves and so on. Matter is “incoherent” when all its waves have a different wavelength, implying a different momentum. On the other hand, if you take a pure quantum system—the electrons in a superconducting magnet, or the atoms in a laser—they are all in phase with one another, and they demonstrate the wave nature of matter on a large scale. Then you can see quite visibly what matter is down at its heart.

Perhaps we can compare it to water in a bathtub. If you “reinforce” the bath water at the right moment, a big wave will suddenly slosh out onto the floor. That is the macro equivalent of what you are describing. But when the little wavelets lap against one another, then not much happens—incoherence, in other words. Is that right?

That’s right. In the coherent system, the waves are all in phase. But now, instead of water, let’s think of something solid, say a billiard ball. A billiard ball is an incoherent mixture of lots of little matter “waves” that are interfering with one another all the time.

But to our everyday understanding, on the “macro” level, a billiard ball is also “coherent” in the usual sense of that word. It obeys Newton’s laws, for example. Throw it with a certain velocity and we can predict where it will land.

Right, but that is a different sense of the word. As I describe them, coherent and incoherent systems are dominated by different sets of physical laws. With the incoherent systems that we see all around us, time is one-directional. And things that come apart don’t spontaneously come together again. And the inertia—of the billiard ball, for example—increases linearly with the number of atoms. With coherent systems, on the other hand, time is two-directional, and inertia increases with the square of the number of elements. In a superconducting magnet, the electron inertia increases with the square of the number of electrons. That’s foreign to Newtonian thinking, which is why Feynman had trouble with it. A coherent system is not more real, but it is much more pure and fundamental.

Can we finesse this business about time going backwards and forwards? Understanding quantum physics is hard enough as it is! When Bohr proposed the correspondence principle, he wanted to keep a single set of laws: “As above, so below.” And yes, in the microcosm, when things are jumbled up and “incoherent,” it does approximate the physics of the macro-world. But under appropriate conditions—what you term coherence—the micro-world seems to operates in a quite different way?

Right—Bohr put his foot on the wrong stone, the Newtonian side rather than the quantum side. The underlying reason is that Newtonian physics was phrased in terms of things like position and momentum and force which are all characteristics of particles. Bohr was wedded to particles.

Are coherence and incoherence absolutes—can something be “a little bit pregnant?”

Yes, it can be. Light from an ordinary fluorescent bulb has a certain amount of coherence, but light from incandescent bulbs has almost none. With coherence, all the waves have a common phase. When they’re out of phase you get all these fringes and interference patterns.

“Coherence” seems comparable to electricity—it has existed forever, and we could see it in the sky as lightning, but only in the nineteenth century were we able to harness it. And only recently have we been able to harness coherent phenomena.

Right. And once we have harnessed them in the laboratory, and begin to understand them, we can start to see them in the universe around us. There are increasing indications that many of the objects in the universe have coherent things going on in them. There are known to be masers in the atmospheres of some stars. It’s now thought that a lot of the beaming of pulsars has to do with laser-like action. That’s just surmised from the actions of these very mysterious objects—mysterious within the normal realm of incoherent physics. The universe is probably full of coherent physics.

That brings us back to Einstein—experimental results continue to vindicate his viewpoint, no?

The Bose-Einstein condensate, for example, or the quantum hall effect, or the superconducting quantum interference device—I list ten of them in my book, beginning in the mid-1930s and going up through 1995. Not many of your readers will have heard of them. But most people know what lasers and superconductors are, and they demonstrate nature acting in ways that Bohr and Heisenberg did not anticipate—a coherent state. Unfortunately, it was not until the 1960s that those results became widely known. So Einstein didn ’t have that information. He predicted coherent phenomena, but he didn’t have a single example that he could actually get his hands on.

So orthodoxy won the day.

And after Bohr defeated Einstein, nobody else would take on the argument. Because if they put Einstein under, think what they would do to you.

And yet it all turned on some very open questions...

Einstein’s basic point was that unpredictability does not mean intrinsic uncertainty. His other complaint was that Bohr was removing understanding from the field of physics. Bohr argued quite passionately that intuitive understanding was just not possible any more, and that you were old-fashioned if you insisted on it.

And so mathematical description was substituted for understanding?

Absolutely. It’s conceptual nonsense. You can calculate stuff with the theory, but the words people put around it don’t make any sense. That had the effect of driving the more conceptually-oriented students out of physics. We have ended up with more and more mathematicians in the physics departments. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with mathematics—it’ s the language we use to express the precise relations of physical law. But there is an increasing tendency to mistake the language for the physics itself. Once we lose the conceptual foundations, the whole thing becomes a shell game. There are very few conceptual workers left in the field. Feynman was one of the last ones, and he wasn’t willing to take on the Copenhagen clan. Nobody was, until we come to A. O. Barut, John Dowling, John Cramer, and a few others.

A lot of the trouble seems to come down to the idea of matter being composed of particles, rather than waves.

Point particles got us into terrible trouble. If you take today’s standard theory of particle physics, and the standard theory of gravitation, it is well known that the result is “off” by a factor of maybe ten to the power of 50. That’s 10 followed by 49 zeroes. The amount of matter in the universe is way, way more than what is observed. And that discrepancy comes, at its heart, from assuming that matter is made made up of point particles.

What’s the problem with them?

Because point particles are assumed to occupy no space, they have to be accompanied by infinite charge density, infinite mass density, infinite energy density. Then these infinities get removed once more by something called “renormalization.” It’s all completely crazy. But our physics community has been hammering away at it for decades. Einstein called it Ptolemaic epicycles all over again.

Hold on...epicycles?

Ptolemaic astronomers assumed that the earth was at the center. But then it became more and more complex to calculate the orbits of visible planets. When you assume the earth is the center, you have to add epicycles to the existing orbits to adjust them. In the same way, when you assume photons are point particles, and all you can calculate is probability, you have to add epicycles of conceptual nonsense to “explain” even the simplest experiment.

So when results don’t fit theory. . .

The theory has to be adjusted, with band-aids stuck on top of one another. This happens all the time with science, but especially with the statistical quantum theory. It takes enormous work to take that theory and work it into a form that is useful for anything except those questions that it was initially devised for. And the band-aid epicycles are then announced as a triumph for the theory. It’s amazing how long they have gotten away with it.

Is there a message in all this?

What this is telling us is that we have simply not been thinking about it right. We have to start working through the whole subject again. And that is going to take real work. I’ve gotten a little start on various pieces of it. Barut and Dowling got some wonderful results with the hydrogen atom. But there’s a whole lot more work to do.

Running through your work is the idea that the deeper thing is probably simpler.

It always worked out that when I understood something, it turned out to be simple. Take the connection between the quantum stuff and the electrodynamics in my book. It took me thirty years to figure out, and in the end, it was almost trivial. It’s so simple that any freshman could read it and understand it. But it was hard for me to get there because all of this historical junk was in the way.

Much has been made of the philosophical implications of quantum theory.

Once Bohr and Heisenberg won scientific the debates, they went around pontificating about philosophy.

What was the thrust?

They said that if the quantum world is inherently uncertain, if the only information about basic physics is statistical, then we need to rethink our view of all of reality. In a way it was a throwback to the old arguments between science and religion. Newtonians used the ability to predict the planets’ positions as a refutation of standard religion, which said, well, “God puts them where he wants and you have just have to have faith about that.” Religion didn’t need to take a stand against Newton, but it chose to, starting with Galileo. And this terrible polarization set in.

So quantum theorists took us back to the unknowable, where things have to be taken on faith or on authority?

Yes, but as we look out at the universe today, there’s nothing that makes it anything but more awesome. In fact, as we look back at those pictures and we think, “Now how could anyone who had any deep sense of faith believe in a God that would make stars by punching little holes in a cardboard sky?”

What was anti-religious about the Newtonian view? He was personally religious.

Nothing, but his followers framed the issue as, “If you can predict it, that shows that religion is wrong.” The quantum theorists reopened the question as “No, you can’t predict it, because it’s basically statistical.”

You could say that for some people, the predictability of nature undermined faith in God (although it needn’t have done so). Quantum uncertainty undermined faith in science.

I think Einstein was being a scientist in the truest sense in his response to the Copenhagen interpretation. He said that none of us would be scientists if deep down we didn’t believe there is a set of regularities in the operation of physical law. That is a matter of faith. It is not something anybody has proven, but none of us would be scientists if we didn’ t have that faith.

What you’re saying is that in a rush to declare science complete, Bohr & co. essentially defined away a key assumption of science?

Faith in physics was undermined. Generations of students were basically driven out of physics because it was no longer comprehensible.

While theory was ailing, though, people were devising all kinds of interesting experiments and practical devices.

It was indeed a time of enlightenment for the experimental side—we had to go off and make our own picture of the world. We got ideas about what experiments would be interesting and went ahead with them. Tony Siegman’s book Lasers is the definitive treatment of the device that underlies the whole field of fiber optics. He shows that the statistical quantum assumption just gets in the way. In an 1,200-page tome, he hardly even mentions photons.

What the reaction in the profession to what you are saying?

People are trying to figure out what to make of it. People like the idea that there is a simpler way of thinking about this, but it’s a lot to get your head around. The world is full of specialists nowadays, and there aren’ t that many people any more who try to understand large fractions of what physics is about. So it is going to take time for people to realize this is a much simpler way to teach physics, and that they can grasp a lot more of it than by today’s method. And some people have said, “This is great—it never made any sense to me, which is why I quit being a physicist.”

You’ve crossed over into biology yourself—building silicon retinas and cochleas. And this is leading to some real revolutions—super-high-resolution cameras and hearing aids with greatly improved intelligibility. Can you tell us a bit about that?

Sonic Innovations is a company whose hearing aid, for the first time, uses our full knowledge of the human auditory system.

And Foveon, your camera outfit?

Foveon is about making the finest photographic images that have ever been made. We have about 60 employees, some of the most creative people I have ever worked with. We’ve been making our own low-volume, high-end cameras for two years. Now, the technology is just beginning to go into name brand cameras. You will be amazed!

Does it use coherence?

Every semiconductor derives its properties from the coherent nature of the electrons in it. The Foveon sensor uses these properties in a more fundamental and powerful way than other photosensors.

The computer industry has thrived by doing well what humans do badly, namely calculation. But computers seem to do badly what humans do well—speech, movement, perception.

The effort to build neurally inspired hardware has been much heavier going than I thought.

You write, “Biological solutions are many orders of magnitude more effective than those we’ve been able to implement using digital methods.” You write about the fruit fly as an embarrassment, because its sensory abilities so vastly outstrip the most powerful computer. What’s going on?

The fly has an autonomous system that avoids being swatted. It has the ability to see and navigate and make decisions on millisecond time scales. We’ve never been able to make artificial vision systems that come within orders of magnitude of that, with all the computation we can throw at them.

Why not?

That’s what I was trying to find out. It makes us look so stupid. And you don’t get popular by saying that. But it’s true. And the more we try, the more we realize it’s a much harder problem than we thought. What is it about the way that the fly, or the cat, or the fish process their information that makes it so much more effective at computing these things? They use what seems like really slow, slimy computational material, and yet they perform miracles with tiny amounts of power, tiny amounts of space and in real time and very fast.

What’s the problem?

We don’t know how even to formulate that problem, and we’ve been working on it since the dawn of computing. Every time we get another order of magnitude in computing capability, somebody says, “Now we’ve got enough!” But we haven ’t begun to get it.

It could be that when you find out what’s really going on, you’d be even more in awe.

As I have found out more about what’s going on, I have become more in awe. I ’m amazed, for example, by the chemical complexity of neurological processes. They’re not just digital or analog—they’re chemical and physical, with dimensions that we do not understand at all.

Now if your faith is correct, behind that awesome complexity lies some simple set of rules. No?

I think there are principles. And I think there are principles of computation that get us this exponential advantage, which don’t have to do with whether you do it with chemicals or electronics.

Are you saying, in effect, architectural principles?

You bet. I thought many times that I was on the verge of getting ahold of one of those. I haven’t been able to make a crisp statement of one yet, but I feel on the verge. Every time I talk to the biologists, I get all charged up again.

Does biology have a problem analogous to the physics problem—lots of people barking up trees, and not many looking at the forest?

Every scientific discipline does. Our establishment rewards that kind of behavior. It’s very, very hard to ask the deeper questions, because you won’ t get tenure that way.

For years, artificial intelligence research has pursued an approach that comes down to: “If we can just write enough code, we can figure out how to make the thing do logic and how to solve problems . . .” It hasn’t worked very well.

I think it just totally failed. Those AI systems can’t see. They can’t hear. They can’t act. And they can’t learn. Looking at the principles used by living systems has been much more successful. There have been recent successes in recognizing faces, fingerprints, things like that. The best results I have seen in reverse-engineering the brain have been the auditory processors done by my friend and collaborator Lloyd Watts. He has made remarkable progress by working with auditory neurobiologists and realizing the architecture of a much more capable hearing system in computational form. That’s one to watch.

And vision?

Silicon sensors have been built that can recognize motion. But to distinguish between a computer and a car—that is a really, really hard problem. And yet we do it effortlessly, and so do flies. So we don’t really know how to ask the question yet.

Sounds like the gluon researchers might be closer.

Oh, I would say so. It’s more likely that we will figure out first if there’ s missing matter in the universe. If so, what it is. And if not, what’s wrong with the general theory of relativity. We’ll figure that out before we figure out the brain. It’s just a really hard problem.

So we shouldn’t expect machines to take over any time soon.

Don’t lose sleep over it. Anybody who says, “Oh my God. These things are going to take over!”—it is just so far from anything real. People don’t even know where to put the decimal point.

Do you have any thoughts about gravitation?

Yes, I’ve been working on it quite actively. It’s funny—the most common force, everyone experiences it, and we just have no clue. It’s fascinating when you think about it. The two long-range forces that we have in nature are the electromagnetic force and the gravitational force. The first we understand better than anything in physics, and yet gravity—we basically have no clue what it is. It doesn’t fit with any of the other theories. It just gets pasted on. It’s really an acute embarrassment.

So there are still lots of mysteries in nature.

We are all just struggling our way in this wonderful realm of nature that we know really very little about. Feynman has this wonderful quote about how the “theory of gravity” once was that the planets were being carried along by a whole flock of invisible angels. Then we ended up with a theory that it is this force between two masses that pulls at right angles to the motion. So he said what we have done is we have gone back to the invisible angels except now they are pushing at a 90-degree angle to the motion.

Not angels but angles...

Once angels were the explanation, but now, for us, it is a “force,” or “field.” But these are all constructs of the human mind to help us to work with and visualize the regularities of nature. When we grasp onto some regularity, we give it a name, and the temptation is always to think that we really understand it. But the truth is that we’re still not even close. Isn’ t it wonderful that nature is like that? It would be so dreadful if nature were so dull that we, with our pathetic little prejudices, had it all figured out already.
Wednesday, September 24, 2003
  Ever had that feeling?

A leading museum has paid £240,000 for a plate which shows a portrait of a man whose head is made up entirely of penises. It is thought to have been made by Italian Renaissance ceramicist Francesco Urbini in the 16th century.

The head is framed by a garland carrying the inscription:

Ogni homo me guarda come fosse una testa de cazi

translation: "Every man looks at me as if I were a dickhead."

Tuesday, September 23, 2003
  The pillage continues unabated Suffice it to say that this stuff really makes my blood boil...
The Theft of Ancient Cities

We are losing the cities of ancient Sumer, where the earliest civilization began, and are doing little to stop it. For thousands of years, these cities have lain relatively undisturbed, as mounds in the desert of southern Iraq. But now, in the chaos of occupation, they are being destroyed by illegal diggers in search of artifacts.

In the last few months, sleepy farming towns like Fejur, Rifai and Afak near the ancient cities have come to life as markets for the illegal antiquities trade. Sellers are hoping that some foreigner, such as a journalist, soldier or contractor, will pay them more than the agents sent by dealers, who give them only a few dollars per item.

Some of the artifacts are being sold inside the country, but the best are smuggled to dealers in Europe, who will sell them to collectors there, or transship them to the United States, Japan and elsewhere. Then, often bearing fraudulent certificates of provenance, they are sold to collectors who justify their collecting by saying that the objects are much safer with them than they are in Iraq. In truth, without their eagerness to possess the artifacts, there would be no illegal digging.

It is easy to dismiss the damage to Iraq's cultural heritage as an unfortunate by-product of war. All wars cause destruction of standing monuments and the theft of moveable artifacts. But most of the looting in Iraq has taken place after major hostilities had ceased. The huge market in illegal antiquities did not exist at all before the 1991 Gulf War, because Iraq had a strong antiquities law. Under the United Nations embargo, illegal digging occurred only at a few sites in the south. But now, in this period of occupation, there seems to be no limit to what will be destroyed.


  Xuan Zang and the Third Buddha
IMG: Bamiyan Buddhas

Then and now: A gap in a cliff is all that remains of the Bamiyan Buddhas--as they were in a photo taken in 1997 and again after the Taliban demolished the them in March, 2001

Does an enormous statue of a reclining Buddha lie buried somewhere near the ex-feet of the Bamiyan Buddhas? Archaeologist Zemaryali Tarzi claims to have "50 percent confirmed" its existence. This I take to mean "er, maybe".

Still, the belief in the existence of a third Bamiyan Buddha comes from a very good source: the observant and highly regarded writings of Xuan Zang, a 7th century Chinese monk who had visited Bamiyan in 630. Xuan Zang described seeing a 200 foot long statue of the Buddha inside a monastery at Bamiyan which was "reclining on his death bed".

Xuan Zang undertook the extraordinarily arduous and perilous journey from China to India to study Buddhism at its source and also to bring back and translate its sacred canon into the Chinese language. He achieved both of these goals: after studying at the famous Buddhist univerisity at Nalanda for there several years he returned home with more than 600 scriptures and established an institute for their translation in the imperial capital at Chang'an. His legacy was the establishment of Buddhism as a highly influential and enduring strain in Chinese thought as well as the preservation of many scriptures which have been lost in their original versions.

In 629, Xuan Zang set out for India along the Silk Route into Central Asia, passing through Tashkent, and Samarkand. He reached Bamiyan the following year before pressing on to Gandhara, the ancient heartland of Central Asian Buddhism.

From there he entered India proper, travelling through the Punjab, crossing the Ganges and passing through the topical rainforests of Southern Nepal to Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha. He travelled to Patna and spent two years studying at the university at Nalanda before finally returning home to China in 645.

Xuan Zang preserved in his eye witness accounts many aspects of ancient India that would have otherwise been lost to history. He keenly observed and accurately recorded geographical details, architectural features, cultural practices, local histories and legends which have since proved to be of immeasurable value to modern scholars and archaeologists.

His writings have led to several discoveries over the years, for example he described a great stupa, now lost, which had been built by the Buddhist monarch King Kanishka near his capital at Peshawar in the second century (note: the name Xuan Zang when rendered in the older style Wade-Giles romanization is spelt Huan Tsang).
Among all [King Kanishka's] buildings one of his remarkable structures was his greatest Stupa (a place where the ashes of Buddhist priests, monks, nobles, etc. are enshrined, and a big domical structure erected on it, and it became a place of worship for the Buddhists).


It is said that Gautama Buddha had predicted that four hundred years after his death a king would erect a stupa to contain many relics of the Buddha's bones and flesh. Kanishka had heard this story.

One day while hunting a white hare in the forest (Peshawar area), he met a shepherd boy building a stupa of mud. Fa-hien said that the shepherd was Indra in disguise. Kanishka ordered to build a stupa on the spot and enshrined a number of relics of the Buddha in it. Buddha had also predicted that the stupa would be seven times burnt down and seven times rebuilt, and the religion itself would disappear from here (Gandhara).

At the time of Huan Tsang's visit, it had been again reduced to ashes for the fourth time. Both the pious travelers relate the same legend according to which after the seventh time, the law of the Buddha would become finally extinct in the country. A Chinese source said that Kanishka himself placed a ball of clay on the stupa praying that it might become an image of the Buddha and the image at once appeared. Huan Tsang had mentioned in his accounts that there were big images of Buddha on the eastern side of the stupa, some were painted and some were gold-washed.

Xuan Zang described the stupa as having a square-shaped plinth which was 100 meters wide on each side and decorated with Stucco images of Buddha. Above this projected a stone tower some 50 meters metres high and above that a further 100 meters of wood. The tower was capped with 10 metres of gold-leafed iron finial and was in total height the equivalent of a modern 13 storey building. This was quite a remarkable engineering feat and it would have undoubtedly been considered an architectural marvel in its time. Using Xuan Zang's account, the foundations of the lost stupa were identified in 1895-97 by Alfred Foucher and excavated by D. B. Spooner in 1908-09.

In another example, Xuan Zang described a pillar at Lumbini in Nepal. The pillar had been erected by Asok, the great Mauryan emperor, near the tree which was said to mark the Buddha's birthplace. This pillar, which was subsequently lost for a millennia was only rediscovered in 1895, again largely thanks to Xuan Zang's writings.
Asoka pillar A collection of legends about Asoka, included in the Divyävadana, a work composed probably in the 1st or 2nd century A.D., tells us (pp. 389, 390) how Asoka, the Buddhist emperor, visited the traditional site of this grove, under the guidance of Upagupta. This must have been about 248 B.C. Upagupta (Tissa: see PALl) himself also mentions the site in his Kathd Vatihu (p. 559). The Chinese pilgrims, Fa Hien and Hsuan Tsang, visiting India in the 5th and 7th centuries A.D., were shown the site; and the latter (ed. Watters, ii. 15-19) mentions that he saw there an Asoka pillar, with a horse on the top, which had been split, when Hsuan Tsang saw it, by lightning. This pillar was rediscovered under the following circumstances.

The existence, a few miles beyond the Nepalese frontier, of an inscribed pillar had been known for some years when, in 1895, the discovery of another inscribed pillar at Nigliva, near by, led to the belief that this other, hitherto neglected, one must also be an Asoka pillar, and very -probably the one mentioned by Hsuan Tsang. At the request of the Indian government the Nepalese government had the pillar, which was half- buried, excavated for examination; and Dr Führer, then in the employ of the Archaeological Survey, arrived soon afterwards at the spot.

The stone was split into two portions, apparently by lightning, and was inscribed with Pall characters as used in the time of Asoka. Squeezes of the inscription were sent to Europe, where various scholars discussed the meaning, which is as follows:

"His Majesty, Piyadassi, came here in the 21st year of his reign and paid reverence. And on the ground that the Buddha, the Sakiya sage, was born here, he (the king) had a flawless stone cut, and put up a pillar. And further, since the Exalted One was born in it, he reduced taxation in the village of LumbinI, and established the dues at one-eighth part (of the crop)."

Xuan Zang's writings once again proved useful to archaeologists in identifying the final resting place of the Buddha at Kushinagar.

Reclining BuddhaKushinagar (Kushinara of yore) is a revered place for Buddhist pilgrims, 55 kms away from Gorakhpur. It was here that the Tathagata, the reciter of truth, breathed his last with the words, "Behold now, brethren, I exhort you, saying, decay is inherent in all component things! Work out your salvation with diligence!" A temple dedicated to the event - the Mahaparinirvana temple today stands amidst a serene `sal' grove .... as if still reminiscing the great demise.

The huge statue of the Reclining Buddha, excavated in 1876 at the temple, is one of the most momentous of all sights for the devout. It was brought from Mathura by a devout monk, Haribala, during the reign of King Kumara Gupta in the 5th Century A.D. The whole of Kushinagar, since the Mahaparinirvana of Gautam Buddha, was turned into a memorial site with stupas including the relic stupa-Mukutbadhana and the Chaitayas and Viharas, built by the devout kings of the Gupta period.

The Chinese travellers Fa Hien, Hieun Tsang and T. Ising visited Kushinagar during different centuries and recorded a graphic account of the place which later fell to bad times, due to lack of patronage. These recordings provided the vital clues for excavations done centuries later by Sir Alexander Cunningham.
So, returning once again to Afghanistan, if Xuan Zang said that there was a reclining Buddha at Bamiyan, I think you can be fairly sure that there really was one. Unfortunately, another thing that you can be just as certain of is that the monastery that it once housed it would have been thoroughly destroyed by the Muslim iconoclasts that swarmed through Central Asia two hundred years later.

But at least these guys were not the Taliban -- and they didn't have at their disposal modern explosives or artillery, so some hope remains that remnants of this "Third Buddha" could still show up under the spade in an excavation.

Incidentally, Xuan Zang became so famous when he returned home to China that his remarkable journey quickly became the stuff of myth and legend. 900 years later these folk stories were compiled and rewritten by a scholar-official named Wu Ch'eng-en in a work that went on to become one of the most enduring and best loved works of Chinese literature. In the story, known as a Journey to the West, Xuan Zang is accompanied in his travels by four celestial creatures: a monkey, a pig and sea-monster and a dragon (which had transformed itself into a horse).

Unfortunately for Xuan Zang (also referred to as Tripitaka which is a pun on his name), his character in the book was reduced to something of wooden caricature whose main role it seems was to be constantly upstaged by the antics of Wu-k'ung, the delightfully mischievous monkey-god.

See also: 

Travels of Hsuan-Tsang

Wikipedia on Xuan Zang.

Temple of Flourishing Teaching

Monkey Madness!!!!

Finally, here's a quiz question:

Q: What is the difference between a pagoda and a stupa?

A: That's easy, they're all stupas, stupid ;-)
The term "pagoda," is a Portuguese imitation of something misunderstood in India, later adopted by the British. This is not what such towers are called in the Far East. The terms was apparently a corruption of either the north Indian term "bhagavata" (blessed), applied to many deities, or the Persian but kadah (idol house). The Portuguese, who were the first Europeans in the Indies, used it for any towered religious shrine, Brahmanical, Buddhist, or any other. The British took it into English from them. And pretty much as they took the natural harbor and island location of Mumbai from them, they took it with the Portuguese corruption of the local designation. Though they eventually abandoned the term in India, the British kept the term in East Asia, where they were less familiar with local traditions.

["Pagodas" & A Reality Check]
Monday, September 08, 2003
  Dark Matter again First proposed as a way of explaining the curious rotational behaviour observed in spiral arm galaxies, the theory of Dark Matter has since gone on to become one of those essential building blocks of cosmological theories. But as an aether-like, invisible, undetectable, inexplicable substance that permeates everything and according to some may even make up 90% of the Universe, it seems like a bit of a Rigg's constant, a big fuzzy fudge factor that was invented to make theory fit facts rather than an actual quantity. I think it's fair to say that it indicates an incompleteness in our current understanding of the Universe.

Perhaps this latest finding will help to stimulate the search for some more satisfying answers.

Astrophysicists will be scratching their heads following the discovery that three elliptical galaxies seem to contain little or no dark matter. A team led by Aaron Romanowsky of the University of Nottingham in the UK found that the dynamics of the elliptical galaxies could be explained without the need for dark matter, in contrast to the motion of spiral galaxies. The unexpected result questions the widely held belief that elliptical galaxies form when galaxies rich in dark matter collide.

Dark matter was originally proposed to explain why galaxies rotate as though they contain much more matter than astronomers can detect with telescopes. The existence of this invisible mass - and its gravitational pull on ordinary baryonic matter - has become a cornerstone of modern cosmology, but now Romanowsky and colleagues have cast doubt on its existence in certain galaxies.

For three elliptical galaxies, the researchers measured how the rotational speed changed from the centre of the galaxy to its outer edge. To do this, they used the 4.2-metre Herschel telescope in La Palma to look for planetary nebulas - shells of gas ejected by sun-like stars at the end of their lives. The spectra emitted by these shells contain well-known absorption lines, which are red-shifted for nebulas receding from Earth and blue-shifted for those approaching us. The degree of this Doppler shift enabled the researchers to calculate the velocities of hundreds of nebulas, and therefore their galactic neighbourhoods.

To their surprise, Romanowsky and colleagues found that the rotational speed of the galaxies fell towards their outer edges - a result that Johannes Kepler would have predicted long before the advent of dark matter. In contrast, the rotational speed of matter beyond the visible edge of spiral galaxies remains constant. Astronomers believe this arises from the gravitational effect of 'halos' of dark matter around spiral galaxies. Now they must explain why certain types of galaxy appear to be rich in dark matter while others seem to be deficient.

[Dark matter deficiency puts theory in the shade]

Monday, September 01, 2003
  Amino acid detected in space The idea that primitive life on Earth may have been seeded by a comet or asteroid impact is controversial. Since it was suggested more than 40 years ago, however, increasingly complex organic molecules have been discovered in space. Now astronomers have detected an amino acid - one of the building blocks of proteins - in interstellar dust clouds in our galaxy. The discovery of glycine in space suggests that interstellar molecules may have played a pivotal role in the prebiotic chemistry of the Earth


  Kinda nodded off there for a minute Apologies (and thanks) to those persistent souls who have been visiting this site during this extended period of hiatus. It's been nearly a whole month since my last post and really things have not been too flash around here for the best part of two month before that. Blogging has been extremely disrupted by a combination of factors like: "being really busy", "running out of steam a bit", "disruptions to the working environment".

It started back in May when we rashly decided to put our house on the market only to pull it off again a week before auction. We haven't regretted either decision, it gave us an opportunity to spruce the joint up and in the process realise that we actually liked the place a lot more than the places we'd been looking at. The next thing that happened was a major work project which has been keeping me fully occupied, time to surf research has been severely curtailed of late.

Any way, Spring has sprung finally (and thankfully, I've reached the "enough" stage when it comes to Winter) and the pace at work has slackened to a slightly less hectic pace and so I hope to be able to get things back into some kind of shape here at the LapLog™ over the next week or so. Stay tuned.

A Real Estate Sky
This image was taken on a drab and overcast Winter's day so it was decided that the sky was to be photoshopped into something nicer for the sales brochure. An unexpected side-effect was that the two white chimneys on the roof became completely transparent, mere ghosts of their former selves.

Sunday, August 03, 2003
  Zeus Hypsistos

The marble statue of Zeus sitting on a throne was discovered on an altar of what is believed to be a sanctuary of the chief Olympian god found at Dion, an ancient Macedonian city in central Greece. The sanctuary was discovered by chance, as it was below the surface of a river that was being drained as part of anti-flooding works. [more]
Athens - Diggers accidentally discovered a temple to Zeus at the foot of Mount Olympus in an indicating that ancient Greeks switched away from polytheism to the faith of a single God even before Christianity appeared in Greece, archaeologists said on Friday.

The sanctuary was found during works to broaden the bed of the Vaphyras river running through the Dion temple complex at the foot of Mount Olympus, northern Greece - the seat of Greek mythology's twelve Gods.

The findings include the sanctuary's foundations, 14 marble blocks with marble eagles engraved on them - Zeus's symbol - and a slightly smaller-than-life-size, headless marble statue of Zeus, said archaeologist Dimitris Pantermalis who supervises the Dion site.

The sanctuary dates to the centuries preceding Christ's birth. Insignia found on it refer to Zeus as "the highest".

"It is a special version of Zeus as a single God residing in heaven... we know that 'Zeus the Highest' played an important role in the transition to monotheism," Pantermalis said.

"The findings are dated before the birth of Christ, that's what's important," he added.

It is the first time that a sanctuary to 'Zeus the Highest' is found, Pantermalis said.

Temple to Zeus unearthed at Mount Olympus 
Fanciful. Preposterous. Absurd.

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