Saturday, April 29, 2017

Review of 'Now' - a proposal about time and the human soul

Now - The Physics of TimeNow - The Physics of Time by Richard A. Muller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Do humans have souls? Do they transcend our physical bodies? Why does Richard A. Muller spend a significant fraction of the text of this new popular level book about the physics of time discussing this?

The answer seems to simply be that the question of whether he has a soul is one that is dear to the author’s heart. I’ve tried to figure out if there is any link between this subject and the main purpose of the book but I failed.

The primary purpose of the book is to introduce a new and still speculative theory of Muller’s that our sense of ‘now’ and of our involuntary ‘motion’ along the arrow of time is a result of new time being created moment to moment. We ‘travel’ to this new time and occupy it as it is created, and the old time becomes the past. The future really does not exist, as it is not yet created.

I like the idea. It feels right to me, and Muller proposes a few thoughts about how his theory might be falsified. But it is early days—way too soon to tell whether this or alternate hypotheses might be the path to better understanding the mystical and perplexing nature of time in our reality.

Muller is an experimentalist, and he repeatedly insists that theoretical physics—manipulating equations using advanced math—is a waste of time unless the resulting theory is rooted in the physical world in such a way that it can be tested. Indeed he gets rather curmudgeonly about it in places. His belittling of 1933 Nobel Prize winner Paul Dirac is rather unbecoming and speaks more about Muller than Dirac.

Setting that aside as an anomaly, or as hasty writing and editing, I found most of Muller’s book a fascinating read. It carefully develops and clearly explains the physics relevant to our understanding of time. Einstein’s relativity is explained and the subsequent development of quantum physics and its various interpretations are explained well.

Then in Part IV of the book he goes on this strange walk-about into ‘not-physics’. I call it that because that is really his point. Things that are ‘not-physics’—not science—are real and are important.

Despite the disconnect with the rest of the book, it’s a point worth making, and I’m glad he made it, and I guess I understand why it’s in this book. If Muller had written a book devoted entirely to his untestable beliefs and perceptions (his favorite example is “what does ‘blue’ look like?”) nobody would take it seriously, and probably no publisher would even consider it. At least this way he gets his message in print.

And yes, it feels like he’s preaching here in Part IV. His main point is succinctly summarized by this quote from page 266:

“Physics itself is not a religion. It is a rigorous discipline, with strict rules about what is considered proven and unproven. But when this discipline is presumed to represent all of reality, it takes on aspects of religion. … The dogma that physics encompasses all reality has no more justification than the dogma that the Bible encompasses all truth.”

I agree. Muller argues that there is a huge body of knowledge that is not testable, but which nevertheless guides us successfully through our daily lives. (‘My boss hates chocolate’ is an example of such knowledge.) The target audience of his argument is the not inconsiderable group of physicists who ascribe to Physicalism/Reductionism—the idea that there is nothing real beyond what can be observed and characterized using science.

I guess if there is a connection between his beliefs and Physics it comes from the fact that science has proven that some things cannot be observed and characterized, even in principle. He runs with the idea that reality is not amenable to logic or experiment (for example, the delicious paradox that there is no such thing as simultaneity of an event to different observers and yet quantum fields collapse instantaneously everywhere in the observed universe, to use an example relevant to the rest of this book) and uses it to justify injecting unprovable belief systems into that void.

Such as believing that he has a soul. By ‘soul’ Muller specifically means the “I” that processes and acts upon physical inputs to the body—the ‘location’ of the mind.

Muller has a peculiar fear of Star Trek style-beaming, or cloning. He asks “would the re-assembled physical body be ‘me’”? I find this odd, given that, as he points out, our current body consists of almost no atoms that we were originally made of. I think where he went wrong is thinking that the “I” is somehow sacrosanct. I believe that I would be a different “me” if I drove to Cleveland vs. if I didn’t.

That brings up another point that Muller insists on. He is convinced that humans have ‘free will’. Personally, I think exercising my free will by choosing to drive to Cleveland tells all that needs to be told. No, seriously. Free will is not an absolute. We have choices, but we are denied most that we might imagine and many more that God might have.

Regardless, I have no true objection to Muller’s beliefs, or to his inclusion of them in this book. From my perspective, that void of logic stands at the very core of reality and defines it. The universe, via its Big Bang, has emerged from it as an island of simple objective rule-following processes, but they are not fundamental, and physicists are now finally beginning to realize that. Life emerged as an island of self-replicating, self-preserving information (DNA), but it is no more fundamental than the universe it happens to find itself in. Its massive complexity does seem amenable to effectively tapping into the ‘free will’ fountain flowing from the quantum field. The emergence of useful information out of incoherent, indifferent uncertainty is what life does best. And that achievement is worth celebrating—worth formulating any number of religious beliefs around. But outside of our safe, limited realm, in the incomprehensible chaos of the vacuum, it is Paradox that rules supreme.

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Friday, April 28, 2017

Month of Sunrises—Conclusion, with bonus days

Selfie on the cloudy, breezy morning of April 18th.

Back in late March, having finished a major reading project, it was time for me to head back out and do some hiking.  I always like to give my hikes some greater purpose than just churning the legs.  So I decided I was going to hike the beach starting well before sunrise each day for a month and experience a month of new dawns.

I love sunrise as a dynamic experience.  Interacting with the weather of the morning, each sunrise is as distinctive as a fingerprint.  Even on a cloudy day like the one I found on April 18th (photo above), there's still plenty to enjoy while doing my favorite activity—walking.

The "month of sunrises" project is now complete, and I can report that it was a great success.

In fact, it was so much fun that I kept on going after the month ended.  As of this morning I have thirty-five consecutive sunrise photos to share.

The first 24 have already been posted.  Below are the links to those.

Introduction and the first three sunrises of the thirty-one (March 25-27).

Week One—March 28 to April 3

Week Two—The sunrises of April 4-10

Week Three, covering the sunrises of April 11 through 17

Because it was so completely cloudy on the morning of April 18th, I didn't expect to get a photo with the sun in it.  So I started taking other shots.  First was the selfie featured up top.  A little later I stopped to take this shot of the same fishing pier with a very rare beach sight—the exposed underbelly of the beach, a remnant of old 'fossil' wetland in black peat that is beneath the layer of sand.

Barrier Islands are constantly migrating landward, and here is proof of it for Topsail Island.

After taking that photo I stowed my camera and was headed toward home when *lo-and-behold* the sun made a sudden very brief appearance.

Success!  The week was off to a good start after all.

The next three days had sunshine in varying degrees.

April 19th. This morning the interest was in the clouds.
April 20th, using a big, barnacle-crusted, chunk of old driftwood as the focus
April 21st, dune grass and a gull with the 'red-rubber-ball' sun

By April 22nd the moon was waning, moving about an hour closer to sunrise each morning.  In the shot below, both the moon and the bright planet Venus shine through the early sunrise glow.

When the sun came up 25 minutes later I found a very laid-back and cooperative gull to pose for me.

He/she stood around, preening and relaxing, while I snapped shot after shot.

The next morning, April 23rd had a flat gray stratus overcast that wasn't going to break.  On some cloudy days I had found interest in the variety of clouds, but not this day.  My best sunrise shot was not much to write home about.

Then it only got worse.  April 24th was a major stormy day.  You may remember seeing the headlines talking about serious flooding in North and South Carolina.

Angry sky and surf at sunrise on the windy, stormy  morning of April 24th 

But I was on a mission.  Luckily it was warm, in the 60's F.  Before sunrise I grabbed my umbrella and headed out into a deluge of heavy rain.  It let up a little later, long enough to include my Go-Lite hiker's umbrella in a photo with the wind-blown dunes and the ragged clouds.

That was supposed to be the last day of this project—the thirty-first.  But wouldn't it be nicer to end a story about sunrises with genuine sunrise?  Well, I went back out the next morning and hit the jackpot.

Sunrise of April 25th

And the next three mornings provided a nice variety.  Here's a wide view of the sunrise of April 26th.

Not much to see, right?  Flat clouds with only a tiny sliver of sunlight far out to sea.  But lurking in that tiny sliver of color was a hidden gem.

Ghost ship at sunrise, April 26th

April 27th featured a nice 'red rubber ball.'

And finally this morning, after a cloud-shrouded sunrise, the sun finally emerged with a nice reflection in the surf.

This morning's sunrise, April 28th, 2017.  Last in the series.

So there you have it—thirty-five consecutive sunrises on the beach in east-central NC.  I had fun out there, and more fun sharing it here.  I hope you enjoyed.

******* ADDENDUM *******

The addiction continues.  The morning of April 29th I was out there again, and was privileged to capture a different sort of phenomenon.  Bat cloud!

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Total Solar Eclipse on the Appalachian Trail, August 21, 2017

Total Solar eclipse, photo on 35 mm slide film by yours truly in February 1979.

In my fifty-odd years of adult life I have had the opportunity to experience two total solar eclipses within a day's travel of where I was living.  For the first of them—on March 7, 1970 along the east coast of the US—I owned a car and could have easily made the 500 mile drive to get to the zone of totality.  But I didn't.  I stayed home at Penn State U and saw the overcast sky dim for a while.

Skipping that opportunity was a mistake that I'll always regret.  Yet I didn't know how much I regretted it until I *did* witness the total solar eclipse of February 26, 1979 near Williston, ND (photo up top—I was living in Fort Collins Colorado at the time).

Here's what the landscape looked like just moments after totality ended, during the 'diamond ring' phase, captured as best I could with my simple 35mm camera with no wide angle lens. 

I had a fantastic panoramic view.  The sky was a beautiful blue, wind was calm, and when the totality arrived, the sensation of heaven revealing its secret glory amid a surreal calm was unforgettable.  The sky overhead was totally black, and yet light from the horizon, where the eclipse was not total, permeated horizontally so that there was an aura of dawn-like glow lighting the ground from all directions.  There's truly nothing like it.  This fish-eye photo taken from a boat somewhere in the tropics gives another idea of what it's like:

That experience was so moving that I vowed I'd not miss the next opportunity.

And here it comes.  This will be the very next eclipse to occur in the United States since 1979.  On August 21, 2017, sights like the above will be within a day's drive for Americans from coast to coast—Oregon to South Carolina.  Visit NASA's eclipse web site for all sorts of details.

I urge you to put it on your bucket list.  Total solar eclipses are among the rarest and most intense visual phenomena this planet has to offer.  Many people plan vacations just to see them.

One great way to tap into the wild beauty of this event would be to take it in as part of a section hike of America's foremost hiking trail, the Appalachian Trail.  The path of totality will be visible along a couple hundred miles of trail, and there are any number of excellent view points.  Here's an overview map, probably too detailed to see easily.

Totality will not be visible from the southern terminus of the trail at Springer Mountain, GA.  But you'll enter the zone after 22 miles of hiking, at about two miles north of Woody Gap.  The first good viewpoint would be six more miles up the trail, from the rocky outcrop next to the stonework hiker shelter on top of 4500 foot Blood Mountain.  For day hikers this is a rugged (steep) 2.5 mile hike up from a big parking lot at Neel Gap, and there are services right there at the Walasi-Yi hiker hostel and store at the gap.

Detail of the southern part of the trail through the path of totality

Panoramic view from Blood Mountain summit
Blood Mountain shelter, right at the summit
Next good viewpoint is five miles the other side of Neel Gap (some call it Neel's Gap.  Either way, it's named after a USGS surveyor who bullied his name onto the map because he drew it.  The proper local name is Walasi-Yi, or in English, Frogtown Gap).  This is another wide open rock outcrop on top of Cowrock Mountain, and another mile and a half up the trail, beyond Tesnatee Gap and just before Hogpen Gap is Wildcat Ridge.

View of Cowrock Mountain from Wildcat Ridge, a short way off the AT on the trail to Whitley Gap Shelter
From here there aren't a lot of great panoramic viewpoints that I can remember through the rest of Georgia, though when you get out onto the road at Unicoi Gap or Dicks Creek Gap, you'll find decent views of the sky.

In southern North Carolina, which you reach after 75 1/2 miles of trail, you'll get into the area of the maximum eclipse.

Here you'll have a selection of several decent viewpoints, including Standing Indian Mountain (nine miles north of the GA/NC border) and Little Ridgepole Mountain (seventeen miles).  Right on the centerline of the maximum eclipse is the old Albert Mountain Fire Tower.

View from Albert Mountain Fire Tower (21.5 miles north of the GA/NC state line).  Big Spring Gap shelter is within a mile farther north.
Farther up the trail is Winding Stair Gap and the highway down to the welcoming trail town of Franklin.  There will be a great view of the eclipse from town, and you can get a motel room and make it a zero day, dedicated just to the eclipse.

Four and a half miles north of Winding Stair Gap is a short side trail up to beautiful open Siler Bald. It's a really pretty spot.

Looking up the side trail to the open summit of Siler Bald

There's also a shelter near there.  Another six miles of trail brings you to the Wayah Bald observation tower.

This 'bald' is now overgrown with forest, but there are good views around the tower area.

The next two viewpoints north are lowland spots, the Nantahala Outdoor Center, which is as famous for white water sports as for hiking, and Fontana Dam, at the edge of Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

Once you enter the national park you will have hiked about 160 miles from Springer Mountain.  After climbing for about five miles you'll have an opportunity to climb rickety old Shuckstack Fire tower.

And then there will be views along the ridge on the border between NC and Tennessee.

Last of these views before you leave the zone of totality in the vicinity of Charlie's Bunion, is the popular (and likely crowded for the eclipse) tower on top of Clingman's Dome.

What about the weather?  Well, unfortunately the high ridges on a summer afternoon are places where billowing cumulus clouds frequently form.  Weather is hot and humid this time of year and the iconic 'Great Smoky' haze will also be abundant even if the clouds hold off.  Climatology says that there is about a seventy percent chance of cloud cover at the time of the eclipse, about 2:30 in the afternoon Eastern Daylight Time, at that time in August.  If you prefer a better chance of clear sky, I'd head out west to the Great Plains of Nebraska, even as far as Wyoming.

This eclipse will be only the fourth one to cross the Appalachian Trail since it was opened.

The first was on January 2, 1925, which passed through Harriman State Park NY.  The trail between Bear Mountain and Arden NY opened Oct 7, 1923, and the eclipse encompassed the entire length of the Appalachian Trail as it then existed!  Guaranteed *that* will never happen again.

The next total eclipse singed part of the White Mountains of New Hampshire on August 31, 1932.  Trails had long been in place there, known by other names.  They would become part of the AT, but since the AT wasn't officially completed until 1937, I don't know the status of the White Mountain trail system during those years.

Finally there was an eclipse that crossed Southern Maine on July 20, 1963.  After that there has been a half century wait until this summer's event.

If you're wondering what's next, there's a major US eclipse across the SE and Midwest on April 8, 2024, and that will cross the AT at its northern terminus on Katahdin and will be visible from Whitecap Mountain and the hundred mile wilderness.

If you miss that one, you'll have a long wait.  The next time an eclipse crosses the AT will be on Sept. 14, 2099 in Central Virginia.

Wherever you decide to go, I know it will be a memorable experience.  Good luck with your viewing.  Maybe I'll see you out there.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

A Month of Beach Sunrises—31 in a row: The week three Extravaganza

Sunrise of April 11th at the Sea View fishing pier

This fourth installment in the "month of sunrises" project found me hiking the dawn beach in the presence of some awe-inspiring displays. If you want to catch up on what came before, here are the links to the first three posts in this series:

Introduction and the first three sunrises of the thirty-one (March 25-27).

Week One—March 28th through April 3rd

Week Two—The sunrises of April 4-10

Now, without much further ado, here come the rest of the Week Three sunrises:

Pre-sunrise sun pillar on April 12th.  This phenomenon is caused by flat ice crystals that are falling through the air.  The air flow around each crystal causes it to spend most of its time oriented parallel to the ground.  You can observe this behavior yourself by dropping a piece of paper or a flat leaf. 
On April 13th, with the help of high thin clouds and a few thicker ones, the sun seemed to be imitating the planet Jupiter with its stormy bands.
The sunrise of April 14.  This is one of my favorite shots of the month, with the gull and the billowing and towering cumulus clouds out over the warm waters of the Gulf Stream.
Close encounter.  Before sunrise on April 14th I came across this UFO—a jellyfish saucer—that had landed on the beach.
Ragged clouds and a red-rubber-ball sun made for a spectacular wide shot on April 15th
Earlier on April 15, I came across this beach castle.  Is this where the jellyfish-saucer Aliens live?
Another 'red-rubber-ball sunrise' happened on April 16th.  When it's very hazy the sun rises dimly, sometimes barely visible when it first appears, and gets bright only very slowly as it lifts above the haze.
Final day of the week, April 17th found the waning crescent moon perched high in the sky as the first pale light of sunrise was developing.  This view also features Sea View Fishing Pier.
Another of my favorite shots, the sunrise of April 17th.

Weather was wonderful this week.  Temperatures were in the 60's F.  While wind on the beach can make a day in the 60's feel downright cold, there was very little wind this week.  It was a pleasure to be out there as the new day unveiled itself.  I almost don't want this month to be over.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Thirty-One consecutive sunrises, week two

Sunrise of April 5th, which I shared with another two legged onlooker

Sunrises seemed to come in matched pairs during this seven day period.  The headline shot above came on the second day of the week, and it was sandwiched between two mostly cloudy mornings where the sun didn't make a direct appearance.  Fortunately the sky still held some interest.

Bands of retreating clouds around sunrise on the morning of April 4th.  It got sunny later in the day.
Roving bands of clouds obscured sunrise on April 6th.  It didn't rain, but the morning was persistently cloudy. 

The following two days had almost identical appearing sunrises.  I've already posted the one for April 8th.  Here's April 7th's sunrise.  The sky was completely clear except for this scattering of very low cumulus clouds out over the Gulf Stream where the cool air met the warmest of the water.

Fortunately there were some other beach oddities to keep my interest on these two days.

Portuguese Man-o-War.  I found several beached on the morning of April 7th after the stormy onshore winds of the day before.  These are not considered jellyfish but are a colony of cooperating organisms that, like jellyfish, have a very nasty sting.
A Black Skimmer. The color of its translucent bill and bright legs was enhanced by the early morning orange sunlight on April 8th.  Lower mandible of the beak is much longer than the upper because this bird skims the surface of the water with it as it flies, scouring the surface for small fish, insects, crustaceans, and mollusks.

Finally, April 9th and 10th featured bright orange sunrises. and for both of them my best shot happened right at the moment of sunrise.  What's more, on both days I was in the vicinity of the New River Inlet channel entrance buoy.

So to provide a distinction between these last two days I grabbed one final shoreline shot, taken in the dawn glow before sunrise on April 9th.