Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 21, 2016

How did the universe begin? How will it end?

Filed under: cosmology,science — louisproyect @ 10:09 pm

The last entry in the latest Harper’s Magazine Index, a compendium of interesting factoids featured each month, reminded me that I wanted to say a few words about cosmology:

Percentage of Americans who feel a deep sense of wonder about the universe at least once a week: 46

I am one of those Americans who had such feelings, often twice a day. It has always been with me to some extent but much more so after seeing the documentary on the Hadron Collider titled “Particle Fever” that I reviewed just two years ago. The film can be seen on Amazon streaming, as a DVD from Netflix or for $2.99 on Youtube:

It is entirely possible that my review didn’t exactly represent the purpose of the Hadron Collider but this was about the best I could come up with:

A hadron is a composite of subatomic particles (quarks) that have mostly been identified, except for the one that is at the hub: the boson. It is commonly referred to as the Higgs boson, after the British physicist who theorized its existence back in 1964. Don’t ask me to try to explain this (as if I could) but the boson is viewed as the critical sine qua non for the creation of the universe. As the film barrels along at an exciting pace, we learn that if the experiment fails to prove its existence, some physicists will conclude that reality consists of multiple universes each with its own set of discrete laws of physics. While that sounds like a good plot for a Star Trek episode, some of the physicists interviewed in the film—including uber-physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed, who is a multi-universe adherent, fear that it will make the task of a unified theory of matter impossible.

Multiple universes each with its own set of discrete laws of physics? That’s pretty difficult to imagine but for someone like myself just about all these theories about the origins of the universe, its certain termination, and fundamental laws of astrophysics such as gravity, etc. are virtually impossible to imagine, let alone understand.

Does any of this have anything to do with Marxism? Says Louis Proyect to Louis Proyect: “I’m glad you asked that question.”

Frederick Engels took a stab at the question of gravity in “Dialectics of Nature” and seemed about as in over his head as me in a fragmentary chapter on “Mechanics and Astronomy”:

Newtonian gravitation. The best that can be said of it is that it does not explain but pictures the present state of planetary motion. The motion is given. Ditto the force of attraction of the sun. With these data, how is the motion to be explained? By the parallelogram of forces, by a tangential force which now becomes a necessary postulate that we must accept. That is to say, assuming the eternal character of the existing state, we need a first impulse, God. But neither is the existing planetary state eternal nor is the motion originally compound, but simple rotation, and the parallelogram of forces applied here is wrong, because it did not merely make evident the unknown magnitude, the x, that had still to be found, that is to say in so far as Newton claimed not merely to put the question but to solve it.

To the displeasure of the scientists involved with Higgs boson research, it has been popularized as the “God Particle” in a 1993 book titled “The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question?” by Leon Lederman, a physicist who shared the Nobel Prize in 1998 with two other men researching neutrinos. Like everything else falling within the rubric of astrophysics, trying to get a handle on neutrinos is nearly impossible for the layman especially when they are described simultaneously as having the dimensions of thousands of galaxies and being massless. What the fuck?

Just by coincidence (or maybe there’s more than just a coincidence), a lot of the breakthroughs on understanding the origins of the universe begin to take place just around the time of the Russian Revolution and its stormy aftermath and largely through the pioneering efforts of Albert Einstein who wrote an essay for the first issue of Monthly Review in 1949 titled “Why Socialism”. In case you’ve never read it, it is good reminder of what the word “socialism” once meant as opposed to the vaporous formulations of Bernie Sanders:

The profit motive, in conjunction with competition among capitalists, is responsible for an instability in the accumulation and utilization of capital which leads to increasingly severe depressions. Unlimited competition leads to a huge waste of labor, and to that crippling of the social consciousness of individuals which I mentioned before.

Maybe the people who set up the Marxism Internet Archives understood that Einstein’s Relativity: The Special and General Theory was worth including even though few people would be able to understand much of it. This much I am fairly sure about, his work was about understanding time, space, gravity—the building blocks of the universe so to speak—but not so much about how it began.

That is much more the bailiwick of men and women who developed the “big bang” explanation for the origins of the universe. Among the earliest proponents was a Catholic priest named George Lemaître who concluded that the universe was expanding, a theory that was soon supported by Edwin Hubble. It was of some interest that a priest was a pioneer of the “big bang” theory, especially since it was compatible with Catholic doctrine. For Pope Pius XII it validated Catholicism even though Lemaître resented making such a connection and eventually persuaded the Pope to drop the matter.

As the most famous physicist since Einstein, Stephen Hawking—like him—is known by everybody but understood by few. He is notable for synthesizing Einstein’s theory of relativity and quantum mechanics, the field that Nils Bohr developed in the 1920s. Einstein highly respected Bohr but could not embrace a theory that he viewed as incomplete. It probably would not be a stretch to say that Hawking was able to synthesize Einstein and Bohr.

Quantum theory, as I understand it, is mostly focused on subatomic particles but at least one physicist applied to astrophysics. Born in 1930, Hugh Everett split his time between weapons research for the Pentagon and explaining how It All Began. He developed something called the Universal Wavefunction that supported the idea that quantum mechanics could make multiple universes possible, a notion that Nils Bohr found reprehensible when Everett presented it to him in a 1959 visit to Copenhagen. (I should mention that Hawking is another supporter of this idea.)

Discouraged by the reaction that Bohr and others had to his work, Everett abandoned physics and focused on arms research, even hoping to cash in on the Vietnam War. In 1973 he made another career transition into software development and launched a company called DBS where he developed a passion for programming—of all things. The man died of a heart attack in 1982, the result of a life style of smoking, boozing and overeating that made him even more vulnerable to an early death than Christopher Hitchens. His belief in quantum immortality, a thought experiment about as obscure as anything in this field, did not do much good in the end, nor did it do much for his daughter who killed herself in 1996, asking in a suicide note that her ashes be put in a garbage can just like her father had requested in a will. (As an atheist, he thought that’s where one’s remains belonged.)

Everett’s son Mark discovered his dead body. As leader of the rock band Eels, Mark Everett writes songs about death, mental illness and loneliness. After his cousin died while working as a stewardess on the jet that hit the Pentagon on 9/11, he wondered if it might have struck his father’s old office there.

I recommend the BBC documentary on Mark Everett titled “Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives” in which he performs and interviews his father’s fellow scientists about which a Scientific American blogger wrote:

Visitors to the film’s Web site can read two previously unpublished documents that Everett’s son, EELS singer-guitarist Mark, 45, found among the 25 boxes of his father’s belongings. One of the documents is from an early draft of Everett’s doctoral dissertation, in which he uses the metaphor of an amoeba splitting to explain his many worlds theory. In the other, he responds to cosmologist Bryce DeWitt, who told Everett that his theory was a “beautiful mathematical formula, but I do not feel myself split,” according to Byrne.

Getting back to Hawking, it is worth noting that his political views hew close to Einstein’s even if not as well grounded in historical materialism. In a Reddit session, he gave this reply to a question about technological unemployment:

If machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed. Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality.

Also, like Einstein, Hawking is a critic of Israel—so much so that he honored the BDS movement by pulling out of a conference there in 2013.

As indicated above, I am fascinated by the questions of how the universe began and how it will end even though most of the articles I crosspost to Marxmail sail over my head. I am not sure how much Alan Woods understands about astrophysics but he and his followers are certainly not shy about offering their opinions.

On the In Defense of Marxism website, you can find a three part article by Adam Booth on “The Crisis in Cosmology”. In part one Booth wants to make it clear that Marxists have no truck with any theory that the Pope could embrace, even mistakenly. The “big bang” and some related theories are just too close for comfort as a kind of creation myth:

All of these theories – whether it is the standard SMBBC model [Standard Model of Big Bang Cosmology], the steady-state Universe, or the cyclic Universe – suffer from a similar problem, in that they envisage a closed, finite Universe, a bounded space that exists with nothing outside of it. But how can there be a boundary to the Universe? What is beyond this boundary? Nothing? To talk of an “edge of the Universe” is as nonsensical as to talk of the beginning of time.

Yeah, how can there be a boundary to the Universe? Unless you run into a barrier erected by Thor or something.

Booth identifies the problem as one of a scientist’s allergy to the concept of Infinity:

The Universe can only be understood as a dialectical unity of opposites: an infinity of finite matter that is itself infinitely divisible and transformable. That is to say, there is an infinite amount of matter – matter that is itself finite in size and endlessly changing. All attempts to banish this infinity from cosmology have only led to even greater riddles and confusion, to talk of “singularities” where all the laws of physics break down. But a singularity is nothing but a theoretically infinitesimally small point, which, in turn is simply an inverted infinity. Far from removing infinity from the Universe, therefore, the cosmologists have merely re-introduced it by the back door.

It is hard to argue with this—even if it is just as hard to argue with those who hold the opposite view because when it comes to cosmology, there is very little way to ultimately “prove” anything. You can only operate on the basis of evidence, for which the “big bang” seems to be accumulated aplenty as time goes by.

The other two articles in Booth’s series mostly amount to arguing against the wisdom of synthesizing quantum mechanics and Einstein’s theory of relativity. Plus some quotes from Lenin’s polemic against Empirio-Criticism, a work that is mostly of interest to the archivists among us.

His final article claims that many of the scientists involved in cosmology are contributing as much to the social good as cosmetologists. Like Keynesians (!), they are spinning their wheels on the public’s expense:

In this view, the field of modern cosmology has become, at best, a fairly harmless form of Keynesianism – a way of employing and funding a few hundred (or thousand) scientists who would otherwise be out of work. At worst, current cosmological research is a colossal waste of scientific resources which, far from being harmless, is actually damaging the wider credibility of science by dressing up nonsense as serious and important theoretical research.

You get the same sense of ennui from Christy Rodgers who wrote a CounterPunch article titled “Is the World Living or Dead?” on March 4, 2016 that was prompted by the front-page news about scientists finding evidence of gravity waves, a phenomenon that would confirm Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

Without quoting Lenin, Rodgers is even more compelling than Booth on the crisis that has befallen physics:

Instead of illuminating ever more of the cosmos, theoretical physics now seems committed to its disappearance in a cloud of unknowing: it proposes that the universe is almost entirely made up of matter we cannot observe and do not understand, and is being torn apart by anti-gravitational energy in quantities unpredicted by any theory, whose source is also unknown. And (according to string theory) the universe is dependent for a unification of its major forces on the existence of infinitesimal extra dimensions that can never be observed or completely described because they are infinitely variable, and generate an infinity of hypothetical universes that can never have any meaningful relation to ours.

I suspect that the question of the origins of the universe will remain insoluble until a deus ex machina appears to tell us mortals How It All Began, maybe Thor riding to earth on a white stallion with a flow chart in hand.

What is more easy to wrap your head around is the idea of it all coming to an end. Scientists generally believe, whatever their particular commitment to quantum mechanics, string theory, the big bang, etc, that the universe came into existence 14 billion years ago or so and that our planet was born about 3.5 billions years ago.

In their 2003 book “The Life and Death of Planet Earth”, paleontologist Peter Ward and astronomer Donald Brownlee see things winding down starting around a billion years from now as the sun begins its inexorable transformation into a “red giant”, a radiating death star that will dry up the oceans and kill everything on earth. Pretty fucking depressing, no?

As it happens, Ward and Brownlee are also the authors of the 2000 “Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe”, which makes the case that we are probably the only advanced species in the entire universe, which itself will come to an end around a hundred trillion years from now as the fuel, which makes the stars radiate, runs out. Sort of a “peak hydrogen” hypothesis.

I get sad meditating on the inevitable disappearance of life on earth and the universe itself. But I am even sadder thinking about the likelihood of a “quantum suicide” taking place long before that. Gosh, I’d be happy if homo sapiens can make it to a million years from now, just one/one thousandth of the time before the oceans dry up in the approaching “red giant” scenario.

Then again, I despair of us making it to a thousand years from now, given the indifference that our ruling classes have toward civilization, human life and everything else we hold dear. With the intensity of global rivalries advancing on a daily basis and with the continued proliferation of nuclear weapons, it seems like the likelihood of making it to 2116 is guarded at best.

In 1950, Albert Einstein, who had praised socialism the year before in Monthly Review, warned of the dangers of nuclear weapons in a pithy fashion: “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” As was the case 67 years ago, the choice is between socialism and barbarism. As long as we have a billion years or so in front of us, let’s make the best of it.


  1. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/feb/06/the-singular-universe-and-reality-of-time-universe-smolin-review
    “Unger and Smolin want to overturn a picture of cosmology with which many of us are broadly familiar through a hundred different popular accounts. In that version, the universe – and therefore time as part of the space-time continuum – came into being following a big bang 13.8bn years ago. At first the universe was inconceivably tiny but then approximately 10 to the power of minus 37 seconds into the expansion, something called cosmic inflation led to exponential growth and the seeds of what we observe today. Oh and, the theory suggests, ours is just one of an infinite number of universes in the multiverse.
    Unger and Smolin say that parts of this model are essentially preposterous. There is, they argue, just one universe. Time is real and the laws of nature are not timeless but evolve. Mathematics is not a description of some separate timeless, Platonic reality, but is a description of the properties of one universe.”

    Comment by Fred Murphy — March 21, 2016 @ 11:10 pm

  2. Louis, you have an admirably curious mind. The difficulty with using vague, poetic and grandiose metaphors for cosmological phenomena (both known and hypothesized) is that what physical cosmologists are actually dealing with are mathematical concepts and formulations of the space-time-matter-energy “continuum” (on a macroscopic level, above atomic scale) which is actually quantized (on a microscopic subatomic level). You must realize that quantum theorists (like Richard Feynman (1918-1988)) take it as a given that the subatomic world has “inescapable strangeness” and “if you think you understand quantum mechanics you don’t understand quantum mechanics.”

    So, anyone interested to get a “more accurate” picture of this topic is better served to read some of the explanations written for the general public by top-notch physicists and innovators of the important theories. Realize that the only way to get “the most accurate” picture of advanced knowledge (which includes plenty of guesswork) on modern physics and cosmology (quantum gravity and the like) is to actually study mathematical physics at the university level — not easy! Accepting the inevitability of gaining only limited knowledge (itself a quantum concept), here are some suggested titles that I have found very interesting and useful.

    If you task yourself with only reading one “real” physics book in your lifetime, then choose

    Relativity, The Special and General Theory
    by Albert Einstein
    1961, Three Rivers Press (NY)

    This book is Einstein’s own effort to make his ideas clear to the widest possible readership. He first wrote it in 1918, and continued to expand, revise and polish it till 1952. If you have at least an eighth grade education (even by today’s US standards), AND you are willing to read methodically, understanding the presentations step by step, then you will gain an excellent (accurate) picture of space-time relativity, and matter-energy relativity (the famous E = m*c^2). This is essential knowledge to then later go on into studies of gravity and the expanding universe (which Einstein writes about in this book), and then black holes (collapsing/imploding stars: condensing matter-energy infinitely warping space-time). Einstein wrote with refreshing clarity, never surpassed by subsequent physics explainers. This is a desert island book.

    There is one caution with regard to the above book by Einstein. The publisher of this latest edition has printed typographical errors (at least 3 that I found), which result in erroneous equations (Einstein’s equations in this book are not difficult). I present the correct forms of these equations, with some explanation, at the following blog post.

    Correcting Publisher’s Errors in Einstein’s “Relativity”
    1 February 2015

    Einstein’s relativity paints the “big picture” of the dynamics of the universe. The subatomic nature of the matter within that universe is governed by quantum mechanics. What is quantum mechanics and how does it affect the nature of the universe? A good modern book, for the general public, on just that compound question is

    The Quantum Universe
    by Brian Cox & Jeff Forshaw
    2011, DaCapo Press (US/UK)

    This is a book of similar type to Einstein’s “Relativity” for the field of quantum physics. Near the end it includes a description of the Higgs Boson and it’s role in the (current) explanation of the origin of mass in the universe. The prose of this book is direct and clear, and the presentation of the ideas is not “dumbed down.” Any patient reader will be rewarded with greater insight (no prior knowledge beyond high school is required).

    Once fortified by Einstein’s “Relativity” and Cox’s & Forshaw’s “Quantum Universe” you will be far advanced compared to the average reader of the world’s bestselling book on cosmology,

    A Brief History of Time
    by Stephen Hawking
    1988, 1996, Bantam Books Trade Paperbacks (NY)

    Here you can have fun with the expanding universe (from an “origin” to a ??), black holes, quantum fluctuations (maybe our universe started as one), parallel universes, wormholes, time travel and the unification of physics (Higgs Boson and quantum gravity type stuff). This is a short book and now illustrated editions are in print. Hawking reviews the basics of relativity and quantum mechanics and then discusses the topics noted. There is an even more simplified version of this book, called “A Briefer History of Time.” These books by Hawking are justifiably bestsellers. They present interesting material with admirable clarity and charm, and without condescension (snide “dumbing down”).

    Each of these three books is a good read singly, and there is no need to read them in the order I suggest. But then, it is not necessary to listen to the movements of a Beethoven symphony in the order he put them it, it just makes for a more complete experience in the long term. I would guess most people would go for dessert first and read Hawking’s book, and those who then want some more depth would read “Relativity” and “Quantum Universe” subsequently. It’s all good.

    How will “the world” and “civilization” (sic.) end?

    Well, there are lots of options. I have found the following three articles interesting in this regard. The first one (Future of the Earth) describes the cooking of the Earth in about a billion years when our Sun expands into a Red Giant. However, geophysical changes prior to that could spell doom for life-on-earth much sooner.

    Future of the Earth

    The idea of a catastrophe occurring with the result that human civilization would end is described in the next article (cockroaches could survive a global nuclear war, and who knows? evolve into the next master species). All the potential disasters listed could occur well before our Sun expands to engulf the Earth. A must-read for insurance actuaries.

    Global catastrophic risk

    Finally, the potential of climate change to “end” human civilization within about two centuries (sooner?) is explored at length by a scientist friend of mine in the following article. Bottom line: climate change is inevitable, irreversible, and for us not for the better; but “doom” will not occur within 40 years, but it just might be evident in 200. Most of us are probably too old to live to learn how (if) this movie ends.

    How Dangerous is Climate Change?, How Much Time Do We Have?

    That’s all folks.

    Comment by Manuel García, Jr. — March 22, 2016 @ 7:28 am

  3. Had a little trouble getting this (is it above here?) posted.

    Comment by manuelgarciajr — March 22, 2016 @ 7:31 am

  4. This article nicely summarizes the industry of astrophysics. It does leave out one interesting topic however. That is that the universe we inhabit, in the infinite multiverse, is a simulated universe. Any google search of simulated universe will produce many links which explain the scientific evidence that our universe is a simulated universe. The logic that simulated universes are possible which will be explained in these links seems quite plausible to me. The impilcation of this is not only IS there an infinite number of real universes there could be a really really really really huge number of simulated universes. Why not simulate universes inside of simulated universes?

    Another thing that I would like to point out is that the word universe should mean everything that there is. Uni = one. It therefore makes more sense to me to say that we live in a universe with an infinant number of dimensions. Could it make sense to say that we live in a Cosmos with an infinite number of universes? What ever the best terminology is I would prefer to be living in a simulated universe rather than a real universe.

    If we are living in a simulated universe then perhaps the reckless stupidity that we have as a species displayed will be used for educational purposes in the dimension that ran the simulation. I hope that I do not discover that it was run for entertainment purposes only. (The Seven Billion Stooges, Staring Rudolph Philmore as Ghengis Khan and Lucy Brown as Cleopatra, with a special cameo appearance by Arnold Schwartzenegger)

    It does seem to me that these brilliant people did misallocate their considerable imaginations trying to figure out what came first, the chicken or the egg, rather than answering much urgent and practical questions. Were the Nobel award winning scientists in the end really any smarter than the highly esteemed theologians, especially those that spread their viruses from the halls of seminaries, who thought that their insights were vastly more important than the pronouncemnts of astrologers? Yes that sentence was difficult to follow. I wrote it that way so that only a very few people could understand it so as not to insult almost everyone.

    I almost have to wonder, were climatologists in the 20th century really so stupid or were they just afraid to speak the truth because of reasons that may have been valid? How much sense did it take to understand that thousands of gigatons of methane are locked up in the permafrost and if that permafrost starts to thaw it will start a chain reaction that makes a nuclear explosion look like a firefly? How much sense did it take to understand that there was very little insulation covering that permafrost?

    I should note that these comments were made before I watched the one hour film that was embedded in the article. There is no need to respond to my comments as they are not real only simulated. 20 years from now no one will be laughing anyways.

    Comment by Curt Kastens — March 22, 2016 @ 11:11 am

  5. Unless we workers, blacks, women and immigrants get behind the International Communist League – Fourth International (Spartacist League) and forge another October Revolution to seize the means of production and science we will all be doomed.

    Comment by Marcus — March 22, 2016 @ 12:33 pm

  6. I forgot to bring a few things up in the comments that I made above. First of all, is the end of humity really such a great tragedy? Duh? What an idiot I am for even raising the question. After all billions of people will die that would not have otherwise died, right? After all life is a wonderful risk free opportunity is it not? The good things that happen to us in life are certianly far more pleasant than the bad things are traumatic. Therefore it is totally unreasonable to question the value of our continued existance.

    Now if I were to question the value of human life anyways and decide that we were being fed a pile of shit and it was being called zereshk rice with lots and lots of saffron. I would say that the most civilized way to bring about an end to our species would be by a recognition of what life really is with a low birth rate as being the proper response to that recognition.

    So, what if my understanding of the effects of climate change are wrong and humanity will not perish. Is it any more appealing that those most likely to survive were the ones who were most responsible for the problem in the first place? If only 350 million people die as a result of global warming over a century will the world even take notice? If the result is that over a 25 year period that the world’s population is reduced by 35%, such as happened in the past, humanity will claim victory over the forces of nature. Can socialists join them in declaring victory over the forces of nature?

    Is there a point at which a socialist should say, it is better that I die to show my solidartiy with those who had no chance than live among those who would not change? IF THERE IS SUCH A POINT, at what percentage does it lie?

    Getting back to scientists and theologians, would I be right or wrong to say that Chinese and Indian philosophers figured out thousands of years ago that the chicken and egg problem can not be solved. It might be tempting to say that the egg, as a metaphor for the universe (or for some people, God) was always there but then we come up against the absurdity of a a result without a preceeding cause. The efforts of scientists were not for nothing though. They did produce atomic bombs and atomic energy. I doubt if a praying rabbi, priest, mullah. or a meditating monk could have ever achieved results like that.

    If we were ever to witness a RELEVENT Event in which there was no apparent preceeding cause would that be evidence that our universe is a simulation? I suspect scientists would still say that it is evidence of a random quantum fluxuation that we will someday understand if we exist long enough to keep working on it. I suspect that those who claim to be Jews, Christians, and Muslims, will still say it was a miracle performed by an all knowing, all good, and all powerful God that we should worship and admire, I will say that it was the work of General Organizational Directorate computer programers, in another dimension, who failed to provide a cover story for their intervention in the simulation. Why? Maybe because of human error, maybe because they want us to know at a certian point in our time that we are living in a simulation.

    People who are followers of the Holy Books may say, look we already knew that this world was only temporary. It is the realms of heaven and hell that are permanent. If there will ever be such people who will read these comments I would say that it should be clear by now that these books were clearly not an asset for mankind. These books might have contained helpful comments. None the less those helpful comments were only the sugar coating over the poisons that were embedded inside them.

    I expect that the response from the monothiests to my comments would be even if there were poisons in the books they were put there for a good reason. More importantly even a bad religion or a bad constitution is better than no religion or no constitution at all.

    If that would be their response, it would leave me speechless. How could we know if a bad constitution or religion is better than none at all with out running lots and lots of simulations to see what the outcomes would be?

    Comment by Curt Kastens — March 22, 2016 @ 2:54 pm

  7. Re Einstein’s socialism, one question for present-day radicals is whether we still really endorse the idea of “machine-produced wealth.” So much of the faux left seems to be caught up in the –IMHO–pernicious notion that “we” (the insidiously non-inclusive petty-bourgeois “we”) should and could somehow just walk away from this (waving our ipods) and create a voluntary-association world with many fewer people where everything is bought in tiny boutiques and farmers’ markets (Amazon excepted?) and there are no stinky chemicals, industrial agriculture, or sea-borne plastics at all (except for Apple products).

    It goes without saying that such pastoral visions of “progress” assume–with the harshest of neo-liberal laissez faire ideologues–that great masses of stinky people are to be wished away without comment if they are no longer required (for example as a reserve army of the unemployed). This is usually covered up with a variety of scowls and smirks as a stupid question–the most you are likely to get out of these people is some paternalistic moralism to the effect that workers (or, queen of liberal hate-words, “the Left”) who make “demands” are children who have had too much ice cream at lunch, acted up, and now must be sent to bed without their dinners.

    Of course, these superfluous mouths are perfectly free to wear tee shirts or no shirts all day and have sex with anyone they fancy, arranging their hair however they please. But they MUST be silent no matter what is happening to them.

    This in turn underlines the fact that there is not as much difference as one might think between the pseudoleft yuppies who once turned out in their thousands for Jon Stewart’s smugfest in favor of “sanity” and many supporters of Ronald Rump–not a few of whom (contrary to the stereotype) are in fact highly educated “professionals” (oh word of joy). They are all ostriches with their heads in the sand when it comes to social relations. One of the advantages of Rumpian non-fascism is that it can elicit the tacit support or at least acceptance of yuppie “progressives” even as they persuade themselves that they oppose Rump or support (shivers of joy) Barack Obama. The objective is to confuse and immobilize and not, as with “classic” fascism, to mobilize.

    I myself am decidedly in favor of machine-produced wealth–even in principle of some forms of nuclear energy (e.g., the liquid fluoride thorium reactor–assuming successful development of the necessary engineering and regulatory regime, and if the “nuclear industry” could first be purged of its many liars, confidence tricksters, and assorted criminals against humanity). Likewise, I do NOT hate the supermarket, though I hate its sins.

    I read somewhere (not verified) that it costs $43 per chicken to raise one’s own chickens for meat. Industrial agriculture, please!

    What might be a Marxist approach to this, particularly for U.S. radicals? Among other things: does progress on this front have to wait for a socialist revolution?

    Comment by Pete Glosser — March 22, 2016 @ 5:40 pm

  8. NY Times, Mar. 23 2016
    Review: ‘Seven Brief Lessons on Physics’ Is Long on Knowledge

    Seven Brief Lessons on Physics
    By Carlo Rovelli
    Translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre
    Illustrated. 86 pages. Riverhead Books. $18

    The short and resonant essays in Carlo Rovelli’s “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics” began as columns in Il Sole 24 Ore, the Italian newspaper. Even better, they appeared in that paper’s culture section, its editors sensing that its arty readers could use a bit of stretching.

    Mr. Rovelli is a theoretical physicist, one of the founders of loop quantum gravity theory, and he possesses a welcoming prose style. His columns were a sensation. First gathered into a book in Italy two years ago, they outsold “Fifty Shades of Grey” in that country. The book has gone on to be a best seller in several countries including, this month, the United States.

    Of the five words in this book’s title, the second explains its immediate appeal. If one is going to make one’s head hurt — and some of the counterintuitive aspects of quantum mechanics made even Einstein’s head hurt — short doses have their appeal.

    The essays in “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics” arrive like shots of espresso, which you can consume the way the Italians do, quickly and while standing up. As slim as a volume of poetry, Mr. Rovelli’s book also has that tantalizing quality that good books of poems have; it artfully hints at meanings beyond its immediate scope.

    The seven lessons are about Einstein’s general theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, the architecture of the cosmos, elementary particles, quantum gravity, probability and the heat of black holes and, finally, how humans fit into this picture. We are stardust, the author reminds us, impossibly minor players in the pageant of the galaxies, and well on our way to becoming the agents of our own demise.

    Mr. Rovelli, who is director of the quantum gravity group at the Centre de Physique Theorique of Aix-Marseille University in Provence, understands that the way to reach fickle literature majors (his book is for “those who know little or nothing about modern science”) is to appeal to their aesthetic sensibilities.

    He compares Einstein’s general theory of relativity — which explains that the force of gravity, as we perceive it, actually arises from the curvature of space and time — to Mozart’s “Requiem,” Homer’s “Odyssey,” the Sistine Chapel and “King Lear” in terms of its soul-expanding qualities. He reminds us that the word “quark” was plucked, by the American physicist Murray Gell-Mann, from a seemingly meaningless word in a nonsensical phrase in “Finnegans Wake”: “Three quarks for Muster Mark!”

    He is at his best, however, when spanking those same literature majors for their condescension toward higher mathematics. Stories matter; knowledge matters more.

    “When we talk about the big bang or the fabric of space,” he writes, “what we are doing is not a continuation of the free and fantastic stories that humans have told nightly around campfires for hundreds of thousands of years.” You might tell a great campfire story about an antelope, he comments. Knowing how to track and kill one is more relevant to survival.

    “Myths nourish science, and science nourishes myth,” Mr. Rovelli says. “But the value of knowledge remains. If we can find the antelope, we can eat.” His book politely suggests that anyone who is not interested in modern physics cannot be an entirely serious human being.

    Once you have opened this book’s pod bay doors, as Hal is asked to do in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” you confront a world in which, as Mr. Rovelli puts it, “space is granular, time does not exist, and things are nowhere.” This information shouldn’t be estranging, he writes. It should jump-start curiosity.

    “Ever since we discovered that Earth is round and turns like a mad spinning-top, we have understood that reality is not as it appears to us,” he writes. “Every time we glimpse a new aspect of it, it is a deeply emotional experience. Another veil has fallen.”

    Curiosities do abound here. While explaining quantum theory and the big bang, for example, Mr. Rovelli prints a drawing of a V-shaped series of bubbles that seems to show the arc of a tennis ball taking a single bounce.

    About this drawing, he writes: “Our world may have actually been born from a preceding universe that contracted under its own weight until it was squeezed into a tiny space before ‘bouncing’ out and beginning to re-expand, thus becoming the expanding universe that we observe around us.” In other words, we may be in a rebound relationship with the matter around us.

    It’s an oddly cheerful image on the page. The fearful aspects of “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics” arrive in its final chapter. The author is withering about humanity’s unwillingness to confront global warming.

    “I believe that our species will not last long,” he declares. “It does not seem to be made of the stuff that has allowed the turtle, for example, to continue to exist more or less unchanged for hundreds of millions of years, for hundreds of times longer, that is, than we have been in existence. We belong to a short-lived genus of species. All our cousins are already extinct. What’s more, we do damage.”

    Mr. Rovelli, in this translation from the Italian by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre, imparts a sense that we may have begun to wave farewell, and his book is a roll call of the scientists who have taken us so far, from Einstein and Niels Bohr through Werner Heisenberg and Stephen Hawking.

    Like us and everything else in our universe, they emerged from one small, dense hot cloud. These men’s intellects simply burned a bit brighter. The lessons in Mr. Rovelli’s book, as elegiac as they are incisive, do them justice.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 23, 2016 @ 2:34 pm

  9. I find the idea of how new universes get created that was presented in the link Parrallel lives absurd. I will not even state why as anyone with half a brain should be able to figure it out.
    Yesterday I watched I watched a PBS Nova documentary about time. This documentary stated something that was new to me, That is that if two observers are at a great distance apart but not moving in relation to one another they will observe the same present. But if one is moving away or towards the other one he will observe THE Future or the past of the other one, depending on the direction of travel. IF this is true would not an implication of that be that there is only ONE possible future in our space time continuim? IF there is only one future in this space time continuim would that not be consistent with the 18th century view held be some philosophers, such as Thomas Paine, of a watch maker creator?

    I wonder if Louis wouid care to comment on how such an outook squares with the idea that universe that we can observe is or could be a computer simulation. I myself know nothing about computers other than when you want to divide onething in to something the computer can help a person do it much much faster. So my current understanding is that once data was been introduced in to a computer and the computer has been asked to calculate the data only one outcome is possiblle, If a different outcome is desired the inputs must be varied.

    The outlook of Einstein does not really seem to me anyways to leave any chance for humans to control their own destiny, either individually or collectively, unless quantum mechanics or someother new theory can amend Einsteins theory. It seems to me that another possible implication of the idea that we are stuck inside of a simulation is that the thinking potential of people especially people in crucial positions, may from my point of view be sabotaged. In fact such people might not even have self awareness. That we share this stage with others who are only shallow masks can not be ruled out. If this world is a símulation and everyones brain is part of the simulation then every decision that we think that we make could even be made outside of us. The way that people in crucial positions have behaved over the past 36 years blindly marching forward in such a not a care in the world manner seems to me to be consistent with the idea that many, no most, people are incapable of understanding their situation.

    Furthermore that the vast majority of those who seem to have some sense have ended up in positions with no formal authority what so ever is a leading criminal indicator, to me, of a cosmic conspiracy.

    Comment by Curt Kastens — March 25, 2016 @ 12:00 pm

  10. […] How did the universe begin? How will it end? […]

    Pingback by I refute it thus? | cartesian product — April 29, 2016 @ 12:59 pm

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