Thursday, June 02, 2005

As taken from

What is the Tango?

  In Frankfurt, Germany, a Russian physicist thinks that he’s spotted a sociology of basic particles. Now he wants to talk to photons.

In Tel Aviv, Israel, a physicist/microbiologist has been studying bacterial colonies and thinks he sees a linguistic pattern—a Chomskyite deep structure, a language—in the communication between single-celled beasts. In a paper published in the leading journal of physics, Physica A, the same Israeli physicist has made an even more shocking claim—that bacterial colonies have consciousness.

In Moscow, a mathematician/physicist at the Keldysh Institute of Applied Mathematics of the Russian Academy of Sciences has been pondering quantum mechanics and has concluded that electrons and photons have to make decisions, they have to make up their “minds.”

And in New York City, the founder of a field called paleopsychology thinks that there are common threads between the German’s sociology of quantum mechanics, the Russian’s “emperor electrons,” the Israeli’s sentences “spoken” chemically by bacteria, the Israeli’s bacterial mass mind, and the mass passions aroused by superstars of human culture and of history, from Michael Jackson and Prince to Hitler and Osama bin Laden.

In modern science all of this should be viewed as blasphemy. It’s anthropomorphism, clear and simple. Humans make decisions. Photons and electrons don’t. Humans have language. Bacteria have no such thing. They can’t. They don’t have tongues. They don’t have that critical churner of words and paragraphs—a brain.

The time may have arrived to remove this taboo. Those who’ve labored hard to purge anthropomorphism from their vocabulary may have been the real sinners. They may have been anthropo-chauvinists in disguise.

When we apply words like attraction and repulsion--words that come from human physical and emotional experience--to quarks, protons, and electrons, we may simply be playing on a basic fact of nature. Evolution--and I mean the full sweep of evolution from the big bang to today--is iterative and fractal. The same simple principles show up over and over again. Principles like attraction and repulsion are the tools with which the self-construction of the universe began. They ruled over quarks, photons, and electrons 13.5 billion years ago. They were the master forces of the big bang.

The human high plateau of consciousness, emotion, language, culture, and immersion in the opinions of others is unique. But it's just another form of quark-dance, one it took quarks 13.5 billion years to invent.

The practical consequence? Sometimes bio-patterns can help solve puzzles in physics. Sometimes clues from human psychology can help solve problems in microbiology.

I’m the New Yorker mentioned above, the founder of paleopsychology. I call the social dance-steps of the inanimate and living cosmos The Big Bang Tango. And the concept of the Big Bang Tango is beginning to catch fire.

When the Tel Aviv physicist studying bacteria, Eshel Ben-Jacob—head of the Physics Department at the Raymond & Beverly Sackler Faculty of Exact Sciences at Tel-Aviv University--sent a draft of his upcoming article, “Reflections on Biochemical Linguistics of Bacteria,” I scribbled the usual notations in the margins. One note pointed out that the paper’s facts hint that bacteria have something that strongly resembles human culture. Then I gave the reasons. Ben-Jacob and his co-writers felt the comparison was accurate, and included it in their text.

When the Moscow mathematician, Pavel Kurakin, at the Keldysh Institute of Applied Mathematics of the Russian Academy of Sciences, sent his paper on “Toy Quantum Mechanics with Hidden Variables,” it bristled with forbidden words. According to Kurakin’s theory, a quantum particle receives “queries” from particle detectors. Those detectors “duel” for the particle’s attention. Some of these “pretenders” receive only “refuse” signals. One lucky detector wins the particle’s favor and is blessed with the particle’s visit. In other words, there is competition and communication—a basic Darwinian twosome—at work on the quantum level.

How, I asked does a quantum particle make its decision on which signal to accept?
Who wins what Kurakin call this “lottery”? Says Pavel, “…Query signal intensity is proportional to |psi|2. Detectors win proportionally to their query intensities.”

In other words, in the quantum world, the strongest thrive. But the weak subordinate or die—a rule that shows up in the evolution of stars, galaxies, living beings, minds, emotions, politics, and history.

What’s wrong with these conversations? What’s wrong with Kurakin’s characterization of the rules of the cosmos as “natural fascism”? What’s wrong with Ben-Jacob’s claim that bacteria “send messages,” use chemical “words,” have “a chemical language,” and “can conduct a dialogue”? Or that bacterial “swimmers enter a ‘consultation phase’, during which they divide and communicate until a ‘collective decision,’ is reached”? Or worse yet, that bacteria have “chemical foreplay,” “chemical courtship,” “interpret” the state of the colony, reach a “majority vote,” and, if they have “valuable information announce this fact”? What’s wrong? Every single word of this is scientific heresy.

Plastering human qualities on everything we see is precisely what science has labored mightily to avoid since roughly 1650. Anthropomorphism is the stuff of witches and Church elders—of magic, superstition, and religion. Anthropomorphism carries all the Dark-Age intellectual baggage that folks like Galileo, Hooke, van Leeuwenhoek, Newton, and Voltaire snatched with difficulty from the fists of clerics, alchemists, and potion makers and threw away.

There's a claim implicit in the work of the colleagues I've stitched together on the Internet, a claim that in my work is as explicit as hell: many of the patterns we regard as solely human are not. We share basic rules and stratagems not just with ants, lizards, and chimps.

It's beginning to look as if we share such basics as communication with quarks, abilities like decision making with quantum particles, and complexities like the deep structure of language with bacteria.

Our aversion to anthropomorphism is arrogance in disguise. It's anthropocentrism--a failure to see that we carry in us patterns we've inherited from ten billion years of inanimate evolution, evolution that built the raw material of your finger tips, your blood, your brain, Bara's, my wife’s, Chris Anderson’s, and mine.

We woke up in the 20th Century to something Aristotle once suspected—that we are political animals. Are we clever? Yes. But we are clever beasts. Thanks to 20th Century figures like Wolfgang Koehler, Paul MacLean, Neil Miller, William Hamilton, E.O. Wilson, and Franz de Waal, we caved in and finally fessed up to the fact that many of the things we do and feel we share with reptiles, lab rats, apes, and chimps.

Science is on the brink of yet another revelation. We share many of our “human” qualities with more than just our cousins in the clan of DNA. We share these qualities with atoms, stars, and galaxies.

Is this airy-fairy, New Age wishful thinking, or is this genuine science? If it’s valid, science is in for more than just a minor change. It may be on the brink of what many of its practitioners wish for consciously but fear deep in their hearts, a cataclysmic viewpoint-flip, one that could undermine the validity of their life’s work—a Thomas Kuhnian paradigm shift.

The paradigm shift is coming. I think I hear it rumbling. In fact, as the New Yorker whose been splicing these disparate strands of the Big Bang Tango together, I’ve staked my life on it.

This ties in so perfectly with everything I've come to believe about the world. The Big Bang Tango is an idea I've been gnawing on for a long time and it has a name now. Howard Bloom is a genius.


This Year's Boy said...

Even when Nietzche tried to explode it into my mind, the idea of only the strongest thriving still bothers me. Power struggles bother me, but I am willing to concede that I am mostly just in denial. Besides that, this is all fantastic in its optimism, and completely believable. Especially to someone who has attached to ideations of everything being one and the same and infinite. Especially to someone with at least a passing interest in magick. It's a happy train of thought, and science. I really hope it is true, or true enough to become the new foundation upon which physics is based.

No, but really, my protons are stronger than your protons.

the Last of my Kind said...

An interesting theory, but like what was said above, power struggles bother me. I'm still trying to develop a use for ineptitude, for weakness, for being the lowest of the low; because when you've got nothing left to lose, there must be some power inherit to you then, causing a great paradox and confusing Nietzche/Bloom. Or maybe I've just been watching/reading too much Fight Club.

haha, but dude, Edward Norton and Brad Pitt totally beat the shit out of each other! And you should read the book, it is tantalizingly interesting. And I have it, if you think you can read it before I'm gone for the summer.

Matthew said...

To me, the most important element of all of Bloom's work is that he makes science into art and vice-versa. He's a radical and it shows. He makes science vital and utterly crucial to our understanding of everything while never denying the importance of subjective experience. In fact, I find his writing validates my internal experiences and gives them new direction for growth.

His whole philosophy is based on power struggles; that we are the way we are because of an unending struggle for genetic dominance. He also says that if we allow goombas like Bush to retain power over our scientific and intellectual mechanisms, the human race is going to be toppled by microscopic beasties. you stay up real late and listen to Dark Side of the Moon all the way'll like, blow your

Lauren said...

The other night I dreamed that you, another dark haired kid and I were in a small, whitewashed mud building making wooden helixes. There were general workshop antics: laughter, cursing, questions. The building itself was surrounded by very old, very sturdy looking greenhouses.

One of my favorite Bloom moments was during a Disinfo conference roundtable. He says "the body needs much less rest than we think. If you push it just beyond its limit for an extended period of a couple weeks, then it begins to think 'ok, obviously we need to go into superdrive' and it begins producing its own amphetamines. That's what happened to me while I was in the record producing business." And then someone had to remind him, "but then you were bed-ridden because your body had to take a break for like 16 years."

I was unclear who was the author (authors) of the whole piece. Was all of it by Bloom?

As for power struggles...well, there's always gotta be struggle. When there isn't, we get bored, and we invent it. Somehow, we often forget this, and we think if we could just win (or lose) and end the struggle we'd be set. But our view of struggle could use on of those good solid Kuhnian kicks in the ass. No reason it's gotta be so destructive or unjust. No reason the shift couldn't be towards celebration of the tension. A friend just said to me, sitting in Bryant Park, wondering why we plant ivy instead of food, "we're gonna be in a cage no matter what. We put ourselves in it to keep from getting sucked into everywhere. But there's no reason that the cage shouldn't be really nice, and really roomy." The cage is ours, it's so vital to remember that.

Because, at some point, we might want to get sucked back out there. We should be open to the possibility. Same friend doesn't beleive in the big bang, doesn't believe there was a beginning to the universe, that it's always been here always. It's darn near impossible to wrap the brain around, but feasible if you believe that there's a lot we don't know we don't know, parts of the brain that have yet to turn on, and that we can't know about until they do. When change, mutation, and evolution are viewed as constants rather than exceptions, this becomes easier to think about.

The school psychologist I work with was telling me a couple weeks ago about this Nature Deficit disorder book she was excited about getting once it came out in paperback. I was like, hey, that sounds neat. And then...well, that's REALLY neat. What a funny surprise.