ILLUSTRATI GENESIS: Days 1 & 2

I went to a bookstore and asked the saleswoman, ‘Where’s the self-help section?’
She said if she told me, it would defeat the purpose.
(Steven Wright)

This year the seven issues of the #ILLUSTRATI magazine by Logos Edizioni are each inspired by a Genesis day.
Even my column in the magazine will have to stick to this line; I therefore decided to offer readers seven self-help lessons, parroting those “personal growth” books and courses which — despite being often laughable — people seem to like so much.
In each issue I will start from a well-known detail and try to re-enchant it, by revealing the surprising background that lies behind that banality.

The first two “days” have already been published; here you can find both of them, in a double post.

Seven little lessons to rediscover our everyday life.
Seven days for the Creation… of a new perspective.

DAY 1 – AND THERE WAS LIGHT

The well-known detail: In our room, we turn on the light: a mechanical gesture we take for granted, and repeat every day. We don’t even look at that switch anymore, and we find nothing special in the bulb lighting up the room.

Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse.

The background: The flow of electric charge can be unidirectional (direct current, DC) or reverse direction many times a second (alternating current, AC). At the end of the 1880s, Thomas Edison had developed the direct current system, which was reliable but had a serious issue: it could cover a distance of only one mile off the power plant where the current was produced. George Westinghouse’s alternating current, instead, could be efficiently transmitted over long distances, but at that time it was a complex and experimental system which was not sufficiently understood even by engineers.
In order to corner this emerging market, the Edison and the Westinghouse companies embarked on a no-holds-barred propaganda campaign, which was called “the War of the Currents” by the press. Each of them claimed his own solution was better and safer than the other one; during this controversy, Harold Brown, an electrical engineer (no one had ever heard about him before), decided to take side and launched a crusade against AC. Determined to demonstrate how dangerous the alternating current was, he paid some local children to collect hundreds of stray dogs off the streets, then he killed the dogs one by one, connecting them to a generator of the kind used by Westinghouse. He claimed his tests undoubtedly proved how risky it was to use AC—but indeed, his study didn’t follow a scientific method. Brown decided to give a public demonstration of his ‘findings:’ on the 30th of July 1888, he subjected a dog to several shocks of direct current up to 1000 volts (to prove the animal would survive). When he applied a 330-volt shock of alternating current, the animal died with a last, ghastly bark. This show had a boomerang effect, because it only achieved the result of scandalizing the audience: not only was the experiment uselessly cruel but, since the dog received the lethal shock when he was already exhausted by the previous ones, this brutal charade did not prove at all that one kind of electricity was more dangerous than the other. For this reason, four days later, Brown repeated his demonstration and this time killed three dogs with one single 330-volt shock of AC. But even this attempt did not achieve the desired result of swaying public opinion, since shortly afterwards it turned out that Harold Brown wasn’t an independent researcher but Edison had hired him in order to discredit his competitor.
The War of the Currents reached its peak in 1890 when the State of New York decided to replace hanging with the electric chair. Under Edison’s pressure, they opted for AC as “lethal current.” It was a body blow to Westinghouse, who in the meantime had managed to get Nikola Tesla’s patent for a polyphase induction motor. Thanks to this and other technical improvements, Westinghouse won the war and, in 1895, brought to completion a huge power plant on the Niagara Falls.
Edison never resigned to the defeat. In 1903, he volunteered to electrocute with alternating current Topsy, a female elephant guilty, it is claimed, of killing two circus keepers. On the 4th of January, at 2.45 pm, the pachyderm was electrocuted with a 6600-volt shock, in front of Edison’s cameras filming the execution. But not even this last macabre feat succeeded in giving a bad name to alternating current, which had already become the standard both in the US and in Europe. And which still turns on our lightbulbs today.

The moment of Topsy’s electrocution.

The First Lesson: Current is “all well and good,” it is even fundamental, but it costed the life of a lot of animals, sacrificed in such an insane way only to win a patent war. This may suggest us an uncomfortable but essential thought—light is often matched with shadow, and every glow necessarily involves some darkness. As Bob Dylan sings: “Behind every beautiful thing, there’s been some kind of pain.

 

DAY 2 – THE FIRMAMENT

The well-known detail: Every morning we go to work, we take a quick look at the sky, just to see if there is any cloud. We know who we are and what we have to do. Every evening we come back home at nightfall, just when the first stars appear. We never think about the stars and how absurd they are. We have worked, so we know who we are.

Hubble Ultra-Deep Field, 2014.

The background: We easily forget that the universe is still a total mystery. Its shape, how it began, how it is going to end, what was there before, what is coming after: these are basically fields of speculation. Notwithstanding the huge amount of data collected and evaluated, and despite the numerous theories developed, astrophysicists and cosmologists are often puzzled by what they see. We could say that surprise is the rule in astrophysics.
The matter we are able to see, with our telescopes and other detection instruments, sometimes behaves in such an unexpected way that we need to postulate the existence of something else in order to explain its dynamics.
In other words, since what we observe doesn’t completely add up, there must be something more —and it’s not a small part of it, since we are talking about 95%: researchers conjectured that we can see only 5% of the entire universe.

One of the most complex phenomena to understand is the expansion of the universe.
Immediately after the initial explosion, the universe started expanding very fast; but the gravitational attraction between galaxies slowed down this process and, just like a balloon being almost completely inflated, the universe started to decelerate its expansion. This deceleration led the astronomers to think that in a very distant future everything would stop and cool down. This was the ultimate fate of the universe they envisioned, unless, at a certain point, the process would reverse into the so-called Big Crunch (the opposite of the Big Bang).
This vision remained nearly unchanged during the last century, until in 1998 two different teams of researchers independently made the same disconcerting discovery. It seems that the universe kept on decelerating its expansion during the first half of its existence. And then, some 6 or 7 billion years ago, surprisingly, it started accelerating. Today, galaxies move farther apart much faster than before. How is it possible that they suddenly started to move so fast? What is pushing them away?
Since there is no apparent reason, astronomers hypothesized the existence of an invisible force, called dark energy, which might be responsible for this acceleration. If existing, this energy must be of such a magnitude as to develop the pressure needed to move entire galaxies. To make the math work, dark energy should contribute a 68% of the total energy of the universe; if we add the dark matter (another hypothetical form of matter), we get to 95%—the percentage of the universe whose components cannot be revealed even with our best instruments.
The existence, out there, all around our small planet, of an immense invisible dark ‘force’ playing marbles with galaxies could be an upsetting idea to the most sensitive of us. But the alternative is not comforting either. Indeed, researchers rejecting the hypothesis of the dark energy support something even more paradoxical, at least to the eyes of the laymen: in reality, the universe is not accelerating at all—it is time which is slowing down. According to this theory, the acceleration is only an optical illusion perceived by an observer, like we are, placed inside a spacetime which is slowly coming to a halt.

Things are actually even more bizarre than this. We must consider that what has been said so far relies on the assumption that the laws of physics will always be the same, unchangeable; and until recently everything indicated that the universe had always ‘worked’ in the same manner. Then, in 2010, an Australian study questioned this assumption. Some measurements made by ESO’s Very Large Telescope Project seem to highlight a variation in time of the so-called fine-structure constant – a fundamental quality of electromagnetism that should remain unvaried, constant, as its name suggests. Should it be confirmed, this discovery would imply that the universal laws of physics (gravity, time, space, speed of light, and so on) might not be so universal, and they could vary over time or maybe depending on the ‘area’ of the universe.

The Second Lesson: We live inside a sort of great puzzle, a paradox where the only certainty is that nothing is certain. We cannot even understand what kind of strange place we live in, so how can we always know for sure what we have to do or not to do, what is right and what is wrong? Maybe, only stupid men are certain of everything, as Chuang-Tzu said, as they “believe they are awake, busily and brightly assuming they understand things, calling this man ruler, that one herdsman”. And, when they come back from work, they have no doubts about who they are or what is expected from them, and they never think about the absurdity of the stars.

4 comments to ILLUSTRATI GENESIS: Days 1 & 2

  1. Se le lezioni di self-help fossero tutte così, sarei una cultrice del genere.

  2. Antonello says:

    Grazie: molto chiaro e stimolante. Per una scossa anche più vigorosa al senso comune si può dare un’occhiata a quanto emerso finora dallo studio delle particelle elementari, a scale enormemente inferiori rispetto agli oggetti di cui scrive Ivan.
    A me pare che più avanziamo in una comprensione articolata e organica dei fenomeni fisici, tanto più si allarga il limite dell’ignoto. Una sorta di miraggio, che si allontana quanto più proviamo ad avvicinarci. Non è che quella che stiamo affinando è la semplice conoscenza del nostro stesso modo di interpretare la realtà?
    A volte ho l’impressione che dietro le più grandi scoperte scientifiche o le più argute teorie si nasconda un’insufficiente considerazione del limite strutturale della mente umana. Forse la trama del reale (ammesso che ne abbia una) semplicemente è al di là della nostra comprensione. L’aspirazione alla conoscenza ci è innata e inevitabile, ma questo non implica affatto che la distanza tra noi e l’oggetto del nostro conoscere possa annullarsi o ridursi. Quando raggiungiamo un risultato, quando otteniamo un progresso scientifico, forse stiamo solo ampliando la conoscenza delle modalità di funzionamento della nostra stessa mente e non degli oggetti a cui è rivolta.
    Per esempio; non possiamo evitare di interpretare la nostra esperienza, anche quotidiana, in termini di spazio e tempo (o di spaziotempo secondo la teoria della relatività generale). Ma il tempo, lo spazio o lo spaziotempo esistono davvero? Possiamo dimostrarne la realtà al di fuori di noi stessi? E se fossero solo i modi attraverso cui interpretiamo la realtà per garantirci la sopravvivenza? Sono forse solo alcuni degli “strumenti” di cui la nostra mente si è dotata nel corso dell’evoluzione?
    Il sapere scientifico non è immune dai miti, difficilissimi da riconoscere come tali. Conoscenza scientifica e credenza religiosa non sono prive di lievi tratti comuni. La pretesa di possedere una comprensione unitaria dell’esistente, non è un po’ presuntuosa per una specie animale distintasi, nella sua configurazione anatomica attuale, da nemmeno 200 mila anni, sopra una minuscola scheggia di materia?
    Uh che prolisso! Forse non lavoro abbastanza.
    Gradito il contraddittorio.

    • bizzarrobazar says:

      Caro Antonello, il problema che sollevi è uno dei dilemmi su cui da decenni si interrogano i filosofi della scienza (nonché da secoli i filosofi tout court), vale a dire il famoso distinguo tra mappa e territorio. Esempio: la matematica è stata scoperta o inventata? E’ davvero il modo in cui funziona l’universo o è solo un mezzo per descriverlo in maniera il meno possibile approssimativa?

      In ultima analisi, quello di cui stai parlando è l’impossibilità di conoscere la realtà ultima – se esiste – cioè quella che “oggettivamente” potrebbe risiedere al di là della nostra percezione e delle narrative con le quali interpretiamo gli stimoli ricevuti. L’esistenza di questa realtà oggettiva, che un tempo era un assioma, è sempre più messa in discussione dalla fisica stessa.

      La tua bella e fondamentale domanda (quella che stiamo affinando è la semplice conoscenza del nostro stesso modo di interpretare la realtà?), ricorda una famosa storiella zen, in cui un discepolo dice “la bandiera si muove”, l’altro dice “no, il vento si muove”, e il maestro risponde “né l’uno né l’altra: è la vostra mente a muoversi”. Se dovessi rispondere, ti direi che forse è proprio la conoscenza del nostro modo di interpretare la realtà, ciò che conta davvero – anzi, forse è tutto quello che c’è.
      Ho citato la storia zen non a caso. Può sembrare ironico ma oggi (come preconizzava Fritjof Capra più di vent’anni fa) i fisici fanno le veci dei mistici. E tutti i mistici, in ogni epoca e qualsiasi latitudine, hanno sempre concordato su un unico punto: che non bisogna credere troppo a questa realtà.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.