Friday, July 31, 2009

On My Own At Absolute Zero. Nearly.

Spending time alone, when everyone else is allegedly doing something more fun than you are, is OK. For a while. It does tend to create an uncertainty vacuum, however. With comparatively little to actually focus on, the mind tends to drift in and out of chaos rather like a Bose-Einstein condensate at very low temperatures. For a little tutorial on the fifth state of matter, click here. Or not, as you like. Small incidents capture the attention, like probability spikes on a graph, only to be relinquished by others, no more or less important, which provide brief, sometimes hilarious focus.
Which reminds me of a joke. It's not new, and physicists might appreciate it rather than anybody else...

Werner Heisenberg, the Uncertainty Principle guy, was pulled over by a police officer, who asked him, “do you know how fast you were going?” Heisenberg replied, “No, but I know exactly where I am.”

The cop sneered and pulled out his nightstick. “You little smartass,” he said, and laid into Heisenberg pitilessly with the stick. “How long will this beating last?” cried the forlorn Heisenberg. “I don’t know,” said the cop, “but I know exactly how much energy I’m expending.”

H'm. I really don't know where I am in church at the moment, which if the Uncertainty Principle applies to spirituality, suggests that I know exactly how fast I'm going. Well, no, actually. It seems others might perhaps be experiencing similar difficulties. The hiatus created by the summer creates its own black hole, into which we slip, unannounced, for indefinite periods. Not even light can get back out. It's unsettling.
The image is a representation of the BEC produced by rubidium 87 atoms at 170nK. Jolly cold.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Sermons in Stones

Vacations have a tendency, I find, to making me lazy and prone to procrastination, cunningly cloaked as diplomacy. Years ago, I received a degree in crystallography, which has proven marginally useful over the years, so today's post has this as preamble to a little bit of light relief. Being the wide-eyed, credulous individual that I assuredly am, I believe that my free spam filter is efficient and any information getting past it must of necessity be true. My heart leapt when I read a flyer from a crystal supplier informing me that there was actually a cure for laziness, the mineral Thulite, the national gemstone of Norway, a manganese-rich variety of calcium aluminium silicate and related to the gemstone Tanzanite, which I admire. When ordering my crystals (moderately priced, incl P&P), I gather I can 'love them and look at them, play with them, stroke them, put them in my pocket or wear them around my neck, take them to bed, place them under my pillow, or use them however I will', which seems to have rather dark Freudian overtones, even for me. This one, it seems, allows me to 'recognise myself', presumably in case the mirror image I look at every morning responds with a blank stare. It dispels vanity and selfishness as well as laziness - both essential - and a bigger bang for my buck here, then - and treats disorders associated with calcium deficiency, which might be a more palatable way of absorbing calcium than sucking a piece of chalk.

Since I did twenty lengths in the pool this morning before 6am, I might just save my money.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Borders and Dreams

There's dark malevolence sometimes about the Muslim quarter of the Old City, almost like a barely suppressed rage, particularly noticeable when passing from one quarter to another. Crossing the fence-line, yes it does feel exactly like that - from the Western Wall to the Al-Aqsa complex is rather like crossing an international boundary, which in a sense some would like it to be. This happens to be quite relevant today, since it marks the start of the holiday of the anniversary of Al-Israa' and Al-Mi`raj (Night Journey and Ascension of the Prophet), greeted by children with applause and excited squeaking, since it's a jolly good story.
The Isra begins with Prophet Muhammad resting in the Kaaba in Mecca, when the archangel Gabriel comes to him, and brings him the winged steed Buraq, the traditional lightning steed of the prophets. Harry Potter on board the hippogriff Buckbeak does rather spring to mind...The Buraq then carries Prophet Muhammad to the "Masjid Al Aqsa", which according to The Prophet himself, was "the Noble Sanctuary" or Temple Mount in Jerusalem. No mosque existed there at that time, but, well, never mind. Prophet Muhammad alights, tethers Buraq, and leads the other prophets of Abrahamic descent in prayer. He then re-mounts Buraq, and in the second part of the journey, the Mi'raj, is taken to the heavens, where he tours the circles of heaven, and speaks with the earlier prophets such as Abraham, Moses, and, of course Jesus, and then is taken by Gabriel to Allah. Allah instructs Prophet Muhammad that Muslims must pray fifty times a day; however, Moses tells Muhammad that this could be a problem and urges him to go back several times and ask for a reduction, until finally it is reduced to five times a day.
After Prophet Muhammad returned and tells his story in Mecca, the unbelieving townspeople regard it as absurd. I think I'm in agreement with most Islamic scholars - quelle surprise - who believe it all to have been a dream. No doubt the faithful all over the world are most grateful to the Prophet for his powers of persuasion, since stopping to pray every twenty-eight point eight minutes is likely to play hell with productivity, sleep pattern and sex life.
Happy hols, everyone.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Solid Ground

I have just returned from the-place-with-no-name-that doesn’t exist here. It is a place where cultures meet, ancient stones speak and a pervasive sense of one’s own metanarrative in history is focused. Beside its northern lake, it’s a long stroll indeed from one side to the other, especially when walking on water. Much as I would like the phrase ‘paradigm shift’ along with ‘small miracle’ to be consigned permanently to Room 101, the ground itself clothes biblical history with context and purpose.

Almost everywhere, there are suggestions of possibility. A bland, brown sign directs one to the site attributed to the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes, in fact a stretch of rather grubby beach, the Mount of the Beatitudes crowns a natural amphitheatre and Peter’s house in Capernaum is topped like a maraschino cherry with a modern Catholic church with a glass floor so the archaeological findings underneath are visible during Mass.

Which got me thinking about miracles. I do still wonder if and how it was done, the apparent gravitational reversal of a 600 newton weight being supported on a freshwater liquid surface, apparently with only surface tension to oppose it. But, things may not be as they seem. Snails seem to manage it on an everyday basis, with no visible means of forward propulsion, but we would need shoes the size of football pitches to reproduce the trick.

I read this the other day. In the formation of droplets in a stream of falling sand, scientists have witnessed a dynamic that points beyond the boundaries of traditional physics, and may represent an aspect of a fifth state of matter. Sand as it falls is seen to agglutinate, against all known laws of adhesion and cohesion, into what appears to be droplets, made up of many grains. It seems that the droplets are formed because of instabilities in atomic forces which attract sand grains to each other. Something similar happens to water falling from a faucet, but the forces acting on those molecules are very much larger.

Measurements of this phenomenon, published soon in Nature, overturn the previous explanation for sand droplets — that grains stick to each other after colliding — and quantify what’s called an “ultralow-surface-tension regime.” It’s entirely new territory, and just one of many dynamics governing the behaviour of granular materials, which for reasons unknown act sometimes as solids, or liquids, or gases — or something in-between. The image speaks for itself.

A Chicago researcher wrote “You walk on the beach, and the sand supports your weight. Pick up a handful, and it runs through your fingers, like a liquid. But you can’t walk on water. In the top of an hourglass, sand is (at the verge of) being a solid; it flows through the middle as something like a liquid, and then it’s a solid again,” Ah. Perhaps water might be granular after all. I should dearly love to believe it, rather than in an apocalyptic theology of comfort to a beleaguered community.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Special Places

I was taught Latin at school and a little rhyme springs to mind from forty five years ago. placere to give pleasure and vacare to have leisure.

Perhaps the two are subtly synonymous. The giving of pleasure does have an indolence about it - it is hardly 'work' after all, so I am trying not to smile wolfishly as I am writing. Perhaps I have been following people's inner lives too much in their blogs, or I've been reading too much soulish literature.

I am about 'have leisure', to revisit a slice of the past, which as L P Hartley once said, is a foreign country. We have forgotten how to behave there, its rules have changed, its sidelong glances no longer hold the meanings that they once did. This from 'A La Recherche du Temps Perdu'.

'I feel that there is much to be said for the Celtic belief that the souls of those whom we have lost are held captive in some inferior being, in an animal, in a plant, in some inanimate object, and so effectively lost to us until the day (which to many never comes) when we happen to pass by the tree or to obtain possession of the object which forms their prison. Then they start and tremble, they call us by our name, and as soon as we have recognised their voice the spell is broken. We have delivered them: they have overcome death and return to share our life.

And so it is with our own past. It is a labour in vain to attempt to recapture it: all the efforts of our intellect must prove futile. The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) which we do not suspect. And as for that object, it depends on chance whether we come upon it or not before we ourselves must die.'

The Catholic Church is the expert witness on material objects having a life of their own. Paraphrasing from a Catholic apologetic: 'In the Eucharist, Christ is not recrucified; the Sacrifice of the Mass is unbloody - after the order of Melchizedek. Christ died once, historically finite; but God is outside of time and His offering of Himself is eternal. The Grace Christ offers in the Divine Liturgy and what He offered on the Cross are of the same sacrifice; therefore, in no way can the liturgical Sacrifice be a "repetition" of the Crucifixion. His sacrifice is re-presented ("made present again in some way"). As the Council of Trent put it, "The fruits of that bloody sacrifice, it is well understood, are received most abundantly through this unbloody one, so far is the latter from derogating in any way from the former."'

Hum. I'm not sure I am quite there yet, if ever I shall be, but it's a powerful metaphor for sacred time and place. Much of where I was then - those who read will understand - defines who or what I have become. Will the Wall seem the same, I wonder?
The image is detail from Ghirlandaio's 'Last Supper', 1486 (Scala Museum, Florence)