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Monday, March 30, 2009

Rambling man

I may have to apologize to the people of central Pennsylvania. Yesterday, Jamie and I were shopping at Target for some godchildren’s birthdays (I personally am worst. godfather. ever), and since Target is next door to Dick’s Sporting Goods, I mentioned to him that this might be a good time to get him that sand wedge I promised him at the end of our golfing exploits last season, since which, I believe, we have had only eleven months of winter.  “And loft wedge,” Jamie replied, to which I said, “ah, no.  First you learn to hit the sand wedge. Then we think about a loft wedge.  Remember what I told you—I still don’t know how to hit the dang loft wedge.” Which is true.  Sometimes I open my stance and swing outside-in and send a ball that’s buried in tall grass somewhere up into the clouds, landing it softly and deftly thirty yards away within a few feet of the pin.  And sometimes I move a large clump of earth a few yards, and sometimes I skull the ball, line-driving it into a bunker or a swamp or a stand of trees or maybe a sulfur pit.  Jamie has developed enough skill over the past two years to pull off some very nice finesse shots around the green, but he’s still a menace in sand, and of course I have to rake the bunker after he’s done because that’s the house elf’s job. 

Anyway, I bought him the sand wedge, and he hit some very nice shots off the astroturf in Dick’s practice room.  (Having seen his brother use Dick’s practice room, Jamie would not be denied.) But I now fear, seeing the frost on the grass and on the car windshield, that by getting Jamie a golf club I have doomed my fellow Pennsylvanians to another six weeks of winter. Real Feel® at 10 am as I type: 18 degrees.

I got home (at last!) on Saturday, and Janet left for Connecticut yesterday.  It’s a dizzying series of comings and goings here, and Lucy the Dog is beyond confused.  Last week, I had a moment when Jamie and I were flying back to Harrisburg from Baton Rouge, via Atlanta, and I had no idea where I was or where we were going.  Fortunately, I recovered my bearings in time to remember where we’d parked the car in Harrisburg.

And fortunately, the talks seem to have gone well.  At Grinnell three weeks ago, Jamie and I had a Minor Incident during the talk, when he tentatively came up to the podium at more or less the 40-minute mark of a 50-minute talk, and asked if I would get him Milo and Otis.  Sometimes Jamie sits through his father’s droning talks and writes lists of things on his legal pads (which is great, because it looks like he’s taking diligent notes), but whenever it’s possible, I set him up with his laptop, his headphones, and a movie.  He’s never interrupted a talk before, and I was briefly flummoxed.  “Sweetie, you have to wait,” I said, whereupon he lay down on the windowsill behind the podium for a few minutes before getting up and asking me again.  This time, I said “excuse me a moment” to the assembled crowd of 150 or so, turned to Jamie, checked my watch, and said, “I’ve got about eight more minutes here.  You have to wait until I’m done.” It wasn’t terribly disruptive, but it was weird, since I’ve long assumed he knows better.

When the talk and the brief Q-and-A were over, I asked Jamie, “weren’t you watching your movie?” He said no, and I realized that he’d simply been playing pinball for 40 minutes, and then got bored.  “You were playing pinball all that time?” “Uh huh,” Jamie said, at which I felt terrible, because I had been pretty damn sure that I’d put a DVD in there before the lecture began.  Later that day, when I packed us up, I realized that he did have a DVD in there—it just wasn’t Milo and Otis.  What’s more, next to the laptop he had his Talismanic Object, the DVD of Mamma Mia, a movie of which he is so fond that he insisted, a few months ago, that it would win many Academy Awards.  “Jamie,” I said softly but sternly when I put him to bed that night, “you have to understand something about what happened today.  You cannot stop me in the middle of a talk like that.” He hunched and squinted, which is his way of acknowledging that he knows he done wrong and doesn’t quite want to face up to it.  “I’m not angry, good kid,” I assured him.  “I love traveling with you.  But you had two movies to watch, and you shouldn’t have asked me to go out to the car and get Milo and Otis.  Listen.  I know this sounds strange, but those talks are my work. That’s the reason we went to Iowa.  And I can have fun with you and we can visit people and everything, but then when I do the talk, that’s business.  So if you do that again, I really can’t bring you on these trips with me.” More hunching and squinting.  “OK, I know you understand.  I won’t say any more.”

And I didn’t need to.  Jamie had a blast at LSU, not only because of that alligator tour but also because so many different people played ball with him (literally!), took him to the zoo, and dined and danced with him.  Seriously: the moment we got off the plane we were whisked away to a place called Boudin’s, where Jamie and I had some fine fine gumbo and Jamie danced to two or three songs played by a local cajun band.  In return, my good kid sat through a ninety minute event last Monday—a 4:40 lecture whose Q-and-A ran past 6.

Then I turned around and went to Toledo, becoming even more disoriented along the way.  Fortunately, when they took me to dinner after my talk, I got a kind of cuisine GPS.  In Baton Rouge, you understand, everything is gumbo this and remoulade that, and Jamie and I made our way through crawfish upon crawfish.  The killer was Sunday night’s meal, at which Jamie dined on crabmeat au gratin and I got a fish that came smothered in crawfish and shrimp and crabmeat and then more sauce and then some more food of some kind.  “We’re trying to make Michael gain ten pounds,” said one of my hosts.  “Mission accomplished,” I replied.  In Toledo, by contrast, our server announced that tonight’s special was a cajun steak, but, he reassured us, “it’s not too spicy.” Aha!  I thought.  That helps—I must be somewhere in the Midwest.  Indeed, the entire table found this announcement somewhat strange, and wondered why a restaurant would bother cooking a steak “cajun style” in the first place if it wasn’t too spicy.

Oh, and I did finish the His Dark Materials series.  More on that later this week, in which I prove everyone wrong.  In the meantime, here’s one last item from the latest Travel with Jamie installment.  One reason he’s enjoyed his excursions to Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, California, Nebraska, South Dakota, Iowa, and Louisiana over the past few months is that he wants to visit all the states.  So far he’s been to 35; when I was his age I had been to 12, and had never been west of Buffalo, NY except for one crazed road trip to Cleveland to sell bootleg Fleetwood Mac 1978 U.S. Tour t-shirts (long, long story).  Lately he’s taken to collecting the commemorative state quarters, which is weird, because that’s precisely what Nick used to do back when they first appeared in 1999.  Jeez, you’d think they were brothers or something.  A few weeks ago we found that Jamie had 42 of the 50 quarters, and that Jamie, being Jamie, could tell you which eight states he was missing in alphabetical order.  OK, so we set out to collect the quarters from Arkansas, California, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin.  Whenever someone at a checkout counter realized that Jamie was combing through his change looking for state quarters, he or she helpfully asked him which ones he needed and went through the cash register; for my part, I got a couple of $10 rolls from the bank and poured them out for him.  Within two weeks we were up to 49, and then last week, woo hoo, we finally got a hold of Minnesota.

But that’s not the story.  The story is that while we were doing this, I began to keep track of when each state joined the union, since that crucial information is of course printed on each quarter.  (It is also carved into the steps of the state house in Baton Rouge, as we learned last week.) So at a dull moment in our travels, as Jamie and I and 80 other people waited in our plane for a gate to open up in the Baton Rouge airport, I decided to ask Jamie a question.  I also wanted to keep him from asking me to sing Beatles songs, not only because I didn’t want to sing but also because Jamie now demands that I tell him how old he was when I first sang each song to him.  This new wrinkle gave me an idea.  “Jamie,” I said, “when you collect your quarters, do you look at the years for each state?”

“Uh huh,” he replied.

“You know those are the years each state became part of the United States, right?”

“Right, exactly.”

“OK, then, what year was Missouri?”

“1821.” Holy Moloch.

“Yep, that’s right. Colorado?”

“1876.”

“California.”

“1850.”

“All right then, wise guy.  Virginia.”

“1788.”

Now, I’m very familiar with Jamie’s cognitive strengths, and I believe that on this very blog I’ve mentioned his uncanny ability to memorize hundreds of baseball cards.  But still, I never fail to be amazed.  He did miss a few, thank goodness—but then, so did the Baton Rouge state house, which inexplicably gives the year 1958 for Alaska.

Also, some of those designs are pretty cool.  Many of them suck, and were clearly designed by committee, like the quarters from South Carolina (1788) and Illinois (1818), which throw a whole bunch of crap on the back like an Abe Lincoln plus a palmetto plus a Sears Tower plus a Yellow Jessamine plus a state outline for good measure.  But Montana (1889) and Colorado are quite nice, and for you bison fans, there’s North Dakota (1889) and the surprisingly spare Kansas (1861), both of which forego the temptation to clutter their designs with “The Sunflower State” or “The Peace Garden State” and state outlines combined with birds.  But the household favorite here is Connecticut (1788).

OK, now to settle in.  Not going anywhere for the next few weeks.

Posted by Michael on 03/30 at 08:52 AM
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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Deep (rushed) thought

Last year, a friend, hearing that Jamie was nearing the end of the kids’ version of À la recherche du temps perdu, a/k/a the Harry Potter series, gave him a copy of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass.  It’s been Jamie’s before-bed reading for the past six or seven months; as with the Potter books, I read a couple of pages to him each night.  Right now, he’s with Lyra in Bolvangar, and they’ve just discovered the severed daemons with the help of the grey goose of Serafina Pekkala.  (One side benefit of this exercise is that I now understand just how badly the movie was botched—clearly, it was written by agents of the Magisterium.)

Anyway, I got kinda interested in the thing and decided to read ahead, and then I figured I should read the entire His Dark Materials trilogy.  I’m halfway through the final book, The Amber Spyglass, and I’m getting the distinct sense that, to put it schematically, C. S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet - Perelandra - That Hideous Strength : Milton :: Pullman’s The Golden Compass - The Subtle Knife - The Amber Spyglass: Blake.  Feel free to discuss.  But if anyone includes spoilers in comments, I will ban him or her from all the Internets in the all the universes. 

Oh, and Jamie had a fabulous time in Louisiana.  The high point:  holding a hundred-pound alligator and having a black rat snake wrapped around his neck in the course of an eco-tour in the Alligator Bayou.  Now I’m off to Toledo, then home (at last!) for almost the entire month of April.

Posted by Michael on 03/25 at 10:57 AM
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Friday, March 20, 2009

ABF Friday:  YouTube edition!

Off to LSU tomorrow and then the U of Toledo next week, so I won’t be doing much blogging for a bit.  Bringing Jamie to LSU, going to Toledo solo.  Stop by if you’re in town!

For today’s Arbitrary exercise, I bring you two or three videos from YouTube, which I have cleverly “implanted” in this blog by sorcery.  The first involves a crucial correction to this ancient (but Arbitrary) post from 2006, in which I celebrated some of the little things that make life worth living.  One of those little things was the underappreciated kick-drum work on The Spiral Starecase’s one-and-only hit, “More Today than Yesterday.” Here’s a priceless (and very turtlenecky) reminder:

Ouch!  Anyway, one of the reasons that drumming is underappreciated, no doubt, is that the song came out in 1969, when people had AM radios and therefore never heard stuff on the low end, like bass drums.  Anyway, I don’t remember how this happened, but I identified the drummer as Joel Vincent, and in that I was badly mistaken.  I do remember searching and searching high and low in the intertubes for the name of The Spiral Starecase’s drummer, but I obviously didn’t search very well, because their Wikipedia page existed back then, and very clearly identifies the guy as Vinnie Parello.  Mr. Parello, I apologize.

But lo!  Back in November some YouTuber had the good sense to upload The Spiral Starecase doing the lip-sync thing on their one and only hit, and what do you know?  Some guy showed up two months ago and posted the following comment:

The bass and drums on this song are sweet. Listen to the bass drum fills...SWEET..this cheesy lip sync gives no justice. Who was the drummer?? Listen how he drops those triplet notes in and out of the verse, and eighth notes that keep the song marching right along...great idea!!! No other drummer would of played like that. That guys needs recognition.

A month later came the reply:

re:drummer’s kick!
From associate editor Billy Amendola, Modern Drummer Magazine:
“This was one of the first AM radio pop songs that the kick drum really popped out for me and made me realize I could do more with it without getting super-busy and in the way of the song. And it was my first shuffle groove—the horns made it sound almost big band but not quite—and it still rocked! I always thought it was a session drummer, but band member Vinnie Parello is credited with playing on the tune”

followed by

I went to this song on YouTube because it was in one of the feature articles in the March issue of Modern Drummer ... I didn’t appreciate this song when it came out (I was a teenager) because so much was lost in the AM transmission .. I never heard the kick drum until checking this video out .. amazing drumming for the era and very Bonham like .. incredible for this genre of music .. one of the coolest parts of YouTube

So there you have it—an actual discussion of the kick drum in “More Today than Yesterday,” in which Vinnie Parello finally gets his due.  I do love the internets sometimes.

And as another commenter in that thread points out, the other half of the rhythm section is notable as well: “Hey did you see the bass player . . . didn’t realize Larry Csonka was part of the group..he’s got great moves on and off the field.” No kidding!  That nifty shuffling makes the video rock extra extra hard.

By the way, if you check out their Wikipedia page you’ll discover that The Spiral Starecase started life as The Fydallions, which might be one of the worst ten band names ever.  It’s like they were the Ford Probe of pop.  But then, the group got

noticed by the A&R representative for Columbia Records, Gary Usher, while they were working in El Monte, California. Columbia signed the band, but insisted that they changed their name. “They loved our work” said [guitarist and lead singer Pat] Upton, “but they hated the name and they didn’t like the way we dressed. This was in the late sixties when all the musicians were wearing long hair. We looked very square!” The band was renamed after the movie The Spiral Staircase, but with a deliberate misspelling.

The deliberate misspelling is very rock and roll.  But at least there weren’t any umlauts, like in that other band Spinal Staircäse!  Anyway, guys, we still don’t like the way you dressed.  Prom night is over, dudes.  Great vocals, though.

As for the other video: here’s someone else who never quite got her due for a nice little piece of work.

Ah, it was a simpler time, before “rap” music came along and destroyed civilization.  Alternate version with better production values and the jangly guitar riff from the Spinners’ original:

See you all soon!  Til then, feel free to implant your favorite obscure YouTubes in comments by sorcery.

Posted by Michael on 03/20 at 12:38 PM
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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Inside inside the echo echo chamber

Exclusive to American Airspace but also cross-posted here.

My extensive online research has uncovered the existence of a secret Internet cabal of reporters, journalists, bloggers, writers, and reporters.  Apparently, their self-assigned mission is to ignore major news stories, pass silently over rampant corruption in American government and business, and ridicule wonks and elected officials who take “issues” seriously.  Instead, they seek—often by fawningly citing each other’s work—to inundate American media with inane, trivial bullshit and deliberate stupidity.

The group is called “Twit,” and it is allegedly responsible for innumerable stories and op-eds about Michelle Obama’s biceps, Hillary Clinton’s cleavage, Al Gore’s wardrobe, and Barack Obama’s flag pin.

But beyond these specific examples, it’s hard to trace Twit’s influence in the media, because so few Twits are willing to talk on the record about it.

One byproduct of that secrecy: For all its high-profile membership—which includes Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Maureen Dowd, Mike Allen of POLITICO, Camille Paglia of Salon, Mickey Kaus of Slate, Richard Cohen of the Washington Post, and Caitlin Flanagan of the Atlantic—Twit itself has received almost no attention from the media.

A LexisNexis search for Twit reveals exactly nothing. Brad DeLong, a nonmember, may be the only academic blogger to have referred to it “in print” more than once—albeit dismissively, as “a bunch of twits.”

While members may talk freely about Twit at, say, a Georgetown dinner party, there’s a “Fight Club”-style code of silence when it comes to discussing it for publication.

Kaus, however, did agree to speak on the record, acknowledging that the idea of journalists and writers forming email discussion groups “seems contrary to the spirit of the Web.”

Posted by Michael on 03/19 at 06:10 AM
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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Bonus outrage:  cui bono?

Another fine guest post by George F. Will

Hello again American Airspace!  I see Michael’s still recovering from his travels last week, so I thought I’d just drop by on my own to have a word with you.  Because I believe our country has reached a tipping point, and I strongly suspect we’re going to tip in the wrong direction.

There’s a lot of media-driven outrage being directed at the American International Group lately, and I’m sure I’m not the only person in Washington who’s more outraged by the outrage than by the alleged transgressions of AIG.  But Edward Liddy has it exactly right: those bonuses were part of a legal and binding contract, and we can change that contract today no more than we can reverse the tides.  In overlooking this simple fact, liberals seem to be indulging once again in the moral lassitude that led to the Constitutional crisis of the previous decade: forgetting that we are a nation of laws, and that the rule of law is our secular faith.  Where AIG is concerned, one might say, there is most certainly a “controlling legal authority.” Employment contracts are the very foundation of a civilized society, and cannot be altered or set aside except when the employees in question are unionized auto workers.

It is also true, as Mr. Liddy points out, that if AIG cannot honor its contracts and award its bonuses, it will fail to recruit and retain the finest minds in the business world; that is why such firms need to pay retention bonuses regardless of whether the recipients of those bonuses actually remain at their jobs.

But the bonuses themselves are only half the story.  Even more insidious that the sudden bout of populist fever infecting our national discourse is the redistributionist tax agenda that would permit AIG’s most successful and productive executives to keep a mere sixty percent of those bonuses.  Caught up in the staged outcry over the bonuses, we have forgotten last week’s true outrage—the Soviet-style social engineering to which an overreaching and inexperienced President plans to subject us.  Clearly, Obama needs to be reminded that the tea party is far from over.

A confiscatory tax rate is more than a social injustice.  It is a recipe for social disaster.  What executive in his right mind would continue to work for his $10 million bonus, if he knew that he would be compelled to return nearly four million of those dollars to the federal government?  In his zeal to “spread the wealth around,” Barack Obama, like all redistributionists, fails to understand how wealth is created in the first place—by hard work and ingenuity.  Penalize that hard work, discourage that ingenuity, and before long our financial system will be in ruins.

In “Cui Bono,” Thomas Carlyle wrote, “What is Hope? A smiling rainbow/ Children follow.” Children follow rainbows, as so many young people have followed Obama, expecting a pot of gold as their reward.  But hope is not a financial plan, and rewards come only to those who work for them.  It is time for the Democrats to grow up, learn the lessons of adulthood, and begin dismantling a tax system which creates so many disincentives to wealth creation.  Justice demands that bonuses must be paid, yes.  But true justice demands that bonuses be tax-free.

Posted by Michael on 03/17 at 01:58 PM
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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Time after time

Rev. of Sean Carroll, From Eternity to Here:  The Origin of the Universe and the Arrow of Time.  Forthcoming from Dutton (Penguin), 2009.

Time just isn’t what it used to be.  And space has gotten to be a bit of a problem, as well.  When I was a lad, physicists told me that they had these things pretty well figured out: they had discovered material evidence of the Big Bang, they had adjusted their conception of the age and evolution of the universe accordingly, and, having recalculated the universe’s rate of expansion (after Hubble’s disastrous miscalculations threw the field into disarray), they were working on the problem of trying to figure out whether the whole thing would keep expanding forever or would eventually slow down and snap back in a Big Crunch.  The key, they said, lay in finding all the “missing mass” that would enable a Big Crunch to occur, because at the time it looked as if we only had two or three percent of the stuff it would take to bring it all back home.  When I asked them why a Big Crunch, and a cyclical universe, should be preferable to a universe that just keeps going and going, they told me that the idea of a cyclical eternity was more pleasing and comfortable than the idea of a one-off event; and when I asked them what came before the Big Bang, they patted my head and told me that because the Big Bang initiated all space and time, there was no such thing as “before the Big Bang.”

But now they tell me that most of that account of the world is wrong.  For one thing, the expansion of the universe seems to be accelerating, which puts a crimp in the plans of everyone who’d been counting on its eventual collapse; worse still, no one can explain why it is that the universe is different now than it was, say, 14 billion years ago, or why it will be different 14 billion years from now.  For the simple and stupefying fact remains that the laws of physics are reversible; nothing in those laws prevents time from running backwards, and it’s entirely possible to have universes in which conscious entities remember the future and remark offhandedly to each other that you can’t get some eggs without breaking an omelet.  And yet, our universe obeys those reversible laws of physics even though effects follow causes, old age follows youth, and systems move from states of low entropy to states of high entropy.  How can this be?  How might it be otherwise?

It’s above my pay grade, this much I know.  But thanks in part to local fluctuations in my corner of the universe that allow me to read books before they are written (these are known technically as Borges-Boltzmann Waveforms, or more colloquially, “wrinkles in time”), I can reveal that Caltech physicist Sean Carroll will have addressed—if not quite “answered”—these questions in his new book, From Eternity to Here: The Origin of the Universe and the Arrow of Time. (Not to be confused with this superficially similar book, which has been published in parallel universe XGH0046, where Frank Viola gave up a promising baseball career in order to become a Christian writer.)

Carroll will have set himself a difficult task: on the one hand, the questions before him are so fundamental and vexing that they are taken seriously only by cosmologists, sages, and stoners.  How did I get here?  Where does that universe go to?  Why isn’t it the same as it ever was? On the other hand, From Eternity to Here will take its place in a genre that has emerged into prominence over the past few decades, the Popular Explanation of Incomprehensible Physics.  From Steven Weinberg’s The First Three Minutes to Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time to Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe, such books have appeared roughly once every sunspot cycle, and they usually try to speak to a readership that can’t follow the math but is willing to try to understand why the Second Law of Thermodynamics isn’t just a metaphor for how things fall apart and why the Uncertainty Principle isn’t just a metaphor for how you change things by looking at them.  In other words, the difficulty in writing such books lies in figuring out (1) how much popular misconception needs to be cleared away, (2) how familiar your readers are with things like the light-bulb-in-the-moving-train example, and (3) how much detail you need in order to explain the truly recondite stuff.

For example: one important aspect of Carroll’s argument will have involved the question of how to think about small-scale, anomalous conditions in the universe.  Like us: if indeed the universe is proceeding apace to its eventual heat death, then where do humans come in?  Perhaps, following a provocative suggestion from 19th-century Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann, we might argue that there are potentially vast differences between the macrostate of the universe and a tiny microstate thereof, just as there might conceivably be rooms in which all the fast-moving molecules have congregated in one corner.  The problem with that argument, Carroll will have noted, is that the current state of our microstate is far too complex to be explained by such random fluctuations: all you would really need to make the point is a “Boltzmann Brain” to develop from random molecules somewhere in the universe, form the thought “I think therefore I am, and hey, what’s all this then,” and return to dust again.  Developing an entire biosphere just to spite the forces of entropy seems a bit . . . well, excessive.

Furthermore, Carroll will have rejected the notion that the universe is homogeneous and isotropic.  Instead, he will argue that thanks to something called “spontaneous inflation,” local exceptions to the general rule happen all the time, and that consequently, the universe can be clumpy rather than smooth, and our little corner of it might not look like all the rest.  Carroll may write, “We should certainly entertain the possibility that our observable patch is dramatically unrepresentative of the entire universe, and see where that leads us.” This is deeply counterintuitive; it goes against the Copernican principle, according to which it is a bad idea to think that our immediate surroundings differ appreciably from the rest of the universe, and it relies for its plausibility on some very advanced math.  To put this another way, you know you’re in difficult straits when you hear a physicist say that our standard conception of the Big Bang relies on “classical general relativity,” because when physicists say “classical,” they mean “quaint.” As Carroll may argue:

Most of us suffer under the vague impression—with our intuitions trained by classical general relativity and the innocent-sounding assumption that our local uniformity can be straightforwardly extrapolated across infinity—that the Big Bang singularity is a past boundary to the entire universe, one that must somehow be smoothed out to make sense of the pre-Bang universe.  But the Bang isn’t all that different from future singularities, of the type we’re familiar with from black holes. We don’t really know what’s going on at black-hole singularities, either, but that doesn’t stop us from making sense of what happens from the outside. A black hole forms, settles down, Hawking-radiates, and eventually disappears entirely. Something quasi-singular goes on inside, but it’s just a passing phase, with the outside world going on its merry way.

The Big Bang could have very well been like that, but backwards in time. In other words, our observable patch of expanding universe could be some local region that has a singularity (or whatever quantum effects may resolve it) in the past, but is part of a larger space in which many past-going paths don’t hit that singularity.

Carroll’s larger idea is that ours is one of many not-merely-possible but actually existing universes, that the Big Bang is not the origin of them all, and that in some of them, time may run backwards, forwards, sideways, or not at all.  It is not an utterly alien idea, and Philip Pullman has some fun and games with some aspects of it in the popular book series His Dark Materials.  The passage above, though, seems to dramatize Carroll’s problem quite nicely: the readership imagined here is one that suffers under a vague impression of the Big Bang because its intuitions have been trained by classical general relativity.  How big is this readership, exactly?  And is it expanding?  Carroll’s challenge here lies in disabusing some of his readers of concepts they haven’t gotten to yet, such that he will have had to say, “here’s general relativity, and here are its implications, in layperson’s terms.  OK, well, when it comes to the Big Bang it turns out to be wrong.  So now let me explain quantum gravity, which we don’t quite understand yet.”

It will be a remarkable testimony to Carroll’s skills as a writer and public intellectual that he will have helped to accelerate the expansion of a readership for such things.  Along the way, he will have offered a cogent and compelling explanation for why our universe has such rigid rules about time; he will have suggested that even empty space isn’t empty space; and he will have sketched a picture of a cosmos populated by “baby universes” of all descriptions.  Where are we in that picture?  I won’t say, because I don’t want to give away the beginning.  But I can say that From Eternity to Here will have been a richly rewarding reading experience, even by the exacting standards of the genre, for everyone willing to give it the time.

I didn’t say, because I didn’t want to give away the beginning. Where are we in that picture?  Along the way, he offers a cogent and compelling explanation for why our universe has such rigid rules about time; he suggests that even empty space isn’t empty space; and he sketches a picture of a cosmos populated by “baby universes” of all descriptions. It is a remarkable testimony to Carroll’s skills as a writer and public intellectual that he has helped to accelerate the expansion of a readership for such things.

Carroll’s challenge here lies in disabusing some of his readers of concepts they haven’t gotten to yet, such that he has to say, “here’s general relativity, and here are its implications, in layperson’s terms.  OK, well, when it comes to the Big Bang it turns out to be wrong.  So now let me explain quantum gravity, which we don’t quite understand yet.” And is it expanding?  How big is this readership, exactly?  The passage below, though, seems to dramatize Carroll’s problem quite nicely: the readership imagined here is one that suffers under a vague impression of the Big Bang because its intuitions have been trained by classical general relativity. It is not an utterly alien idea, and Philip Pullman has some fun and games with some aspects of it in the popular book series His Dark Materials.  Carroll’s larger idea is that ours is one of many not-merely-possible but actually existing universes, that the Big Bang is not the origin of them all, and that in some of them, time may run backwards, forwards, sideways, or not at all.

In other words, our observable patch of expanding universe could be some local region that has a singularity (or whatever quantum effects may resolve it) in the past, but is part of a larger space in which many past-going paths don’t hit that singularity. The Big Bang could have very well been like that, but backwards in time.

Something quasi-singular goes on inside, but it’s just a passing phase, with the outside world going on its merry way.  A black hole forms, settles down, Hawking-radiates, and eventually disappears entirely. We don’t really know what’s going on at black-hole singularities, either, but that doesn’t stop us from making sense of what happens from the outside.  But the Bang isn’t all that different from future singularities, of the type we’re familiar with from black holes.  Most of us suffer under the vague impression—with our intuitions trained by classical general relativity and the innocent-sounding assumption that our local uniformity can be straightforwardly extrapolated across infinity—that the Big Bang singularity is a past boundary to the entire universe, one that must somehow be smoothed out to make sense of the pre-Bang universe.

As Carroll argues:  To put this another way, you know you’re in difficult straits when you hear a physicist say that our standard conception of the Big Bang relies on “classical general relativity,” because when physicists say “classical,” they mean “quaint.” This is deeply counterintuitive; it goes against the Copernican principle, according to which it is a bad idea to think that our immediate surroundings differ appreciably from the rest of the universe, and it relies for its plausibility on some very advanced math. Carroll writes, “We should certainly entertain the possibility that our observable patch is dramatically unrepresentative of the entire universe, and see where that leads us.” Instead, he argues that thanks to something called “spontaneous inflation,” local exceptions to the general rule happen all the time, and that consequently, the universe can be clumpy rather than smooth, and our little corner of it might not look like all the rest. Furthermore, Carroll rejects the notion that the universe is homogeneous and isotropic.

Developing an entire biosphere just to spite the forces of entropy seems a bit . . . well, excessive.  The problem with that argument, Carroll notes, is that the current state of our microstate is far too complex to be explained by such random fluctuations: all you would really need to make the point is a “Boltzmann Brain” to develop from random molecules somewhere in the universe, form the thought “I think therefore I am, and hey, what’s all this then,” and return to dust again. Perhaps, following a provocative suggestion from 19th-century Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann, we might argue that there are potentially vast differences between the macrostate of the universe and a tiny microstate thereof, just as there might conceivably be rooms in which all the fast-moving molecules have congregated in one corner. Like us: if indeed the universe is proceeding apace to its eventual heat death, then where do humans come in?  For example: one important aspect of Carroll’s argument involves the question of how to think about small-scale, anomalous conditions in the universe.

In other words, the difficulty in writing such books lies in figuring out (1) how much popular misconception needs to be cleared away, (2) how familiar your readers are with things like the light-bulb-in-the-moving-train example, and (3) how much detail you need in order to explain the truly recondite stuff.  From Steven Weinberg’s The First Three Minutes to Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time to Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe, such books have appeared roughly once every sunspot cycle, and they usually try to speak to a readership that can’t follow the math but is willing to try to understand why the Second Law of Thermodynamics isn’t just a metaphor for how things fall apart and why the Uncertainty Principle isn’t just a metaphor for how you change things by looking at them.  On the other hand, From Eternity to Here takes its place in a genre that has emerged into prominence over the past few decades, the Popular Explanation of Incomprehensible Physics. Why isn’t it the same as it ever was? Where does that universe go to? How did I get here? Carroll has set himself a difficult task: on the one hand, the questions before him are so fundamental and vexing that they are taken seriously only by cosmologists, sages, and stoners.

(Not to be confused with this superficially similar book, which has been published in parallel universe XGH0046, where Frank Viola gave up a promising baseball career in order to become a Christian writer.) But thanks in part to local fluctuations in my corner of the universe that allow me to read books after they are written (these are known technically as Borges-Boltzmann Waveforms, or more colloquially, “wrinkles in time”), I can reveal that Caltech physicist Sean Carroll has addressed—if not quite “answered”—these questions in his new book, From Eternity to Here: The Origin of the Universe and the Arrow of Time. It’s above my pay grade, this much I know.

How might it be otherwise?  How can this be?  And yet, our universe obeys those reversible laws of physics even though effects follow causes, old age follows youth, and systems move from states of low entropy to states of high entropy. For the simple and stupefying fact remains that the laws of physics are reversible; nothing in those laws prevents time from running backwards, and it’s entirely possible to have universes in which conscious entities remember the future and remark offhandedly to each other that you can’t get some eggs without breaking an omelet. For one thing, the expansion of the universe seems to be accelerating, which puts a crimp in the plans of everyone who’d been counting on its eventual collapse; worse still, no one can explain why it is that the universe is different now than it was, say, 14 billion years ago, or why it will be different 14 billion years from now. But now they tell me that most of that account of the world is wrong.

When I asked them why a Big Crunch, and a cyclical universe, should be preferable to a universe that just keeps going and going, they told me that the idea of a cyclical eternity was more pleasing and comfortable than the idea of a one-off event; and when I asked them what came before the Big Bang, they patted my head and told me that because the Big Bang initiated all space and time, there was no such thing as “before the Big Bang.” The key, they said, lay in finding all the “missing mass” that would enable a Big Crunch to occur, because at the time it looked as if we only had two or three percent of the stuff it would take to bring it all back home.  When I was a lad, physicists told me that they had these things pretty well figured out: they had discovered material evidence of the Big Bang, they had adjusted their conception of the age and evolution of the universe accordingly, and, having recalculated the universe’s rate of expansion (after Hubble’s disastrous miscalculations threw the field into disarray), they were working on the problem of trying to figure out whether the whole thing would keep expanding forever or would eventually slow down and snap back in a Big Crunch.  And space has gotten to be a bit of a problem, as well.  Time just isn’t what it used to be.

x-posted.

Posted by Michael on 03/11 at 08:41 AM
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