Readings and Writings
Musings on Physics, Time, Nature and What's Really Important
This newsletter is a little different than others I’ve posted. This time I’ll share some short-form comments in response to a few things I’ve been reading. I hope you like it.
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Physics and Philosophy – Werner Heisenberg
This is a deep dive into quantum mechanics’ implications for human knowledge and understanding. It contains a very concise and readable history of the development of quantum theory, by one of the scientists who laid its foundation. More importantly, it contains this: our mechanistic inquiries into nature must remain mindful that there is “…a subjective element in the description of atomic events…our own activity becomes very important when we have to deal with parts of nature into which we can penetrate only by using the most elaborate tools.”
In other words, our efforts to understand nature, such as finding the Higgs boson or igniting hydrogen fusion, ultimately rest on a foundation not of absolute “reality” but upon only those things we can a) subjectively conceive b) build an apparatus to measure. Humans inextricably delimit what can be “known” since it is humans doing the thinking and building.
So, stay humble in the face of the fact that we cannot know that we don’t know what we don’t know.
Invisible Influence: The Hidden forces that Shape Behavior – Jonah Berger
We are at least vaguely aware that we are subject to external forces that shape our behavior. This book is a good enumeration of them and should be required reading for anyone before venturing online. The “good old days” were bad enough in this regard, but these forces now affect humanity at global scale instantly via the force multiplier of the Internet.
When you go online and indulge in reading news or social media you are being had – just as much as if you were standing amid a vast crowd of sleight-of-hand tricksters asking you to bet money on which hand the card is in. Meantime, half of the others in the crowd are trying to pick your pocket.
You’ve heard it before. You are the product being bought and sold, even by the platforms that support this newsletter. Go take a walk.
Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals – Oliver Burkeman
Speaking of going out for a walk, in this book Burkeman reminds us of our “finitude” and defines the typical human lifespan in units that drive the point home in a fresh way. Four thousand weeks is a convenient round estimate.
There are good tips and practical guidance on how to “make the most of your time.” Hint – it’s not about big, long to-do lists that you march down, dutifully checking off action items. It’s more about deciding what is truly important to you.
For me, Twitter is not important. Reading these books is. And so is sharing insights that may be useful.
Braiding Sweetgrass – Robin Wall Kimmerer
I have been riveted by this book. Dr. Kimmerer is an author, professor of botany, and descendent of the indigenous Potawatomi tribe. There are heartbreaking accounts of the fates of her forbearers at the hands of the White man, poetic descriptions of how properly nurtured Nature reciprocates with benevolence, and masterful descriptions of exquisite biological complexity. This book has moved me to tears more than once.
She describes the subtle and beautiful ways the indigenous population once managed their relationship to Earth’s resources: respectful, knowing that our survival relies on giving as well as taking. Harvesting responsibly by taking only that which is given, taking only half of what’s available, wasting nothing, and giving back to continue the cycle indefinitely.
The “measurement apparatus” these cultures built to validate their concepts was rooted in the fundamental science of observing and preserving the patterns of nature that sustained them for millennia.
In contrast, in our current civilization the collective genius of multitudes of Heisenbergs is used to build stadium-sized atomic fusion machines. They are used for simulation of hydrogen bombs. Only the faintest nod is given to using such sublime brainpower to, for example, solve for the hydrocarbon climate calamity.
Modern hyper-capitalism is founded on taking, taking more, taking as much as possible, mindlessly wasting, giving nothing back. This is perpetuated by motivating and reinforcing the most basic competitive and consumptive human behaviors. Those behaviors are defined by a narrative that says this is the best and only way to thrive and prosper.
But we do not know that we can’t know what we don’t know about how to live sustainably on this planet, and the eventual reckoning with Nature will be painful for many. You may want to invest some of your four thousand weeks taking this seriously and engaging in effective action.
I’ve posted this list before – these are climate-related action resources because humanity’s most egregious behaviors are primarily enabled by fossil fuels.
Go take a walk in nature if you have any left nearby, then come back energized. Reciprocate with Nature by showing up and taking a stand for her.
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