Friday, June 03, 2005

You should look in the latest issue of People. I'm in it, on page 147. Try not to buy it.

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.