The Feminine Science of Water, Part 3

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Reflections / Science

I said last time I would explore some of the references I discovered over the years that lend support to Johnann Grander’s work, and I will at some point, but I find myself drawn in this moment to reflect generally on what I’ve termed a feminine science. For me this notion is not about the physical gender of its practitioners; nor is this series intended to suggest that everything feminine is good and everything masculine is bad. But one without the other leads to pathology. This is what I wish to explore.

When I worked with Grander® Technology, it was not uncommon to be told something like this: “I already know there is nothing to investigate, because what you’re telling me violates the laws of physics.” There are many, many, many problems with such a statement from my perspective, but I would like to summarize them as concisely as possible in a way that will help us explore this concept of a feminine science. My summary would be as follows: our science has marginalized life.

Somehow we’ve created a system of thought in which Life itself just doesn’t fit. There’s something in the concoction of concepts to which we adhere that is labeled as “life”, that comes into the picture relatively late, but by then it is this watered-down intellectual gruel—a head-scratching phenomena defined by six or seven attributes that are all “explained” by the law-abiding dynamics of the utterly lifeless blips, blaps and squiggles that are “real.” As much as I’m fascinated by what the blips, blaps and squiggles have been shown to do in certain circumstances, I’m not at all of the opinion that this is a balanced view of the universe in which we find ourselves.

One can make a career out of perhaps the most fundamental of modern sciences—physics—and never once connect the work that is done to Life. Yes, I’ve chosen to capitalize Life at this point, because the Life I am speaking about—Life in its wholeness, on its own terms—must be distinguished from the loosely bound superposition of concepts to which it has been reduced by modern thought. Life is not a bag of tricks. That aside, my statement stands regardless of one’s stance on the value of Life. One can make a career in physics without mentioning life in any of its forms. To me, this is not only absurd, it is a pathology with destructive consequences.

I’m not one for throwing the baby out with the bathwater, so let me say that I agree with every fiber of my being that there is a place for quantification and analysis of phenomena. Let’s suppose that such is the virtuous expression of a masculine science. Johann Grander performed thousands of experiments, and while I wasn’t in the room, I believe he was a very careful, astute, and methodical observer of his inputs, outputs and controls. In the grand scheme, it’s not a bad thing to be able to calculate how much force a reinforced concrete slab can carry before it fails. It’s not a bad thing to understand how much thrust a jet engine can produce, or how to keep airplanes in controlled flight. It’s not a bad thing to understand how particular metabolic pathways in organisms are affected by disease. But it’s a bad thing to elevate these technical successes at the expense of our awareness that everything we do is rooted in Life.

This is where the masculine tendency goes too far, in my mind, and becomes pathological. This analytical tendency of human thought must be balanced by the virtue of feminine science, which is a receptivity to, awareness of, and appreciation for the reality of Life itself. In the most profound form of which I am aware, this receptivity is nothing short of a wholehearted relationship with Life itself, through which human consciousness becomes a vehicle for insight, intuitive discovery, and direct contact with the wholeness of Life. In a simpler form, it is simply the acknowledgement of context, of the bigger picture in which our analytical efforts take place.

To be clear: what’s absent from our science today is the feminine aspect of human consciousness. Modern scientific thought is closely related to, and the product of, our fragmented human consciousness. It is my opinion that we have quite literally abandoned a portion of our own being in the processes that have led us to the position we find ourselves today. It is not that every specific scientist has done this, or that all human beings who are scientists fit a certain mold. That is patently false. We’re all in this collective vantage we’ve fabricated together, and many have made astonishing breakthroughs via moments of receptivity and insight, but we see the pathology in the fact that they’re not allowed to discuss this inherently personal element of their work. We see the pathology in the fact that it’s “not scientific” to do so.

I want to close this post by returning to the notion that Johann Grander’s technology violates the laws of physics. Really what is conveyed by this statement is that his work is nonsensical when placed into the context and vocabulary of the modern scientific paradigm. This is because he has started with an appreciation for Life, and acted upon his insights into the relationships that form the heart of the natural world. It doesn’t matter that he can’t predict how individual electrons will behave when isolated from all other particles and blown to bits in magnetized tubes. The quintessential experiments of modern science are profoundly interesting, but they are the study of tigers in cages, of cells not only dead, but dyed, of elements stolen from their natural domain and forced to perform on our sterilized stages. Such experiments can only yield a partial understanding; they can never recover the whole. The sad, but simple truth is we don’t even know what we’re looking at in these dazzling displays.

The inability of a profoundly simply technology like Johann Grander’s to be perceived without threat, much less appreciated at a basic level by a great many people, shows the extent to which the predominate mindset in which we live and work has been insulated from the feminine element of human consciousness. And this has occurred to our great loss as a world community. Certainly there have been gains, but the costs are more profound than I think we generally realize.

(I’d like to note that I’ve focused on Johann Grander’s work because I’m personally familiar with it, and because I think it is a profound example of what is possible. In my life it has served as an intriguing reference point in thinking about these topics, and has provided a vehicle for encountering different viewpoints and perspectives. The aim here is not commercial. If you want to refute the notion that all crows are black, it’s probably good to have a white one on your shoulder.)

The Feminine Science of Water, Part 2

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Reflections / Science

After reading about Schauberger’s work, I took my quest to the worldwide web—this was probably around 1999, plus or minus—and somehow came across the website of a company in Canada named Water Revitalization, Ltd. They were, and are today, the North American distributor for a product called Grander® Water, a water treatment technology named after its inventor, the Austrian naturalist Johann Grander.

I was (and remain) fascinated by this technology. The ideas at the heart of this technology are along the lines I proposed previously as being associated with a more feminine science. Grander was not a trained scientist or engineer, but a very intuitive person and a careful observer of nature. He owned a service station in the Tyrol region of Austria before he retired early to follow his creative desires.

The story is published, so I’ll be brief with it here. As brief as I can be. Grander’s thought system was so unique to his observations of the world that it doesn’t readily fit into the vocabulary or “models” we all have in our minds about what the world is, or how it works. He began by building a therapeutic magnetic roller to help his wife with her back ailments, for which he received a gold medal at an inventor’s fair in Vienna. Later he built various generators in his garage, and then began working with what he called a magnetic motor. This was a rotary device that contained magnets with coatings of various minerals—I really don’t know the details—that was intended to produce a form of electricity that would be harmless to nature, and would not shock or hurt people.

As part of his research process, a portion of the circuit he used for the generator was a basin of water. Concerned that the current he was passing through the water may have been harmful to it, he began to study the water under a microscope—and more importantly the bacteria in the water—to see if there were any deleterious effects. He found that the bacteria appeared to be responding to some changes in the water, and also observed that the housecat demonstrated a marked preference for the water in the garage than the water in the house. In this way he said he was “led” to water.

Grander came to call water “a cosmic substance” and said that water receives, stores, and carries “information” from the cosmos that is beneficial to life. He said that the minerals in the earth, used in his generator, resonate with different forms of information from the cosmos, and that healthy water is a carrier of that information to living organisms. There are obvious conceptual resonances here with the work of Rudolph Steiner, as it relates to the principles of biodynamic farming, and to Viktor Schauberger as well—though Grander himself was not familiar with Schauberger’s work or writing.

There is nothing in what I’ve written thus far to describe Grander’s work as “scientific”, except for the fact that he clearly formed hypotheses, and tested his ideas hundreds if not thousands of times, and used microorganisms as his “instrument” for evaluating the condition of the water produced by operation of his magnetic system—a method used by biologists today. The method therefore, was certainly scientific in the pure sense of the word, even if his starting point was not the theories of modern chemistry or physics. Regardless, he eventually discovered that water treated by his generator produced similar effects in other water that he set in containers next to it, without the two waters’ physically mixing. He discovered this by observing the transformations in the behavior of the microorganisms in this proximal water, and again, by observing his cat.

These observations led to the actual product that the Grander® Water company sells worldwide. It is a sealed container full of water treated directly by the generator, through which other water passes. Through resonance, the secondary water receives “information” from the former. There are no electrical connections to the product of any kind, and it appears to work for decades (at least) without resupply or replenishment.

There are countless questions begged at this point, but I’m going to save them, and their answers, for another post or two. For now I want to stick with my personal experience. When I first discovered this technology, my question was: does it do anything?

To this end I traveled to Austria, sometime around 2001 or 2002, and toured several industrial facilities that were using the technology to reduce or eliminate the need for chemical treatment programs in their cooling water systems. One was a company named Isosport, a leading manufacturer of the plastic polymers used in competitive snow-skis, another was a Voest Alpine steel mill, a third was a semiconductor manufacturing facility, whose name now escapes me, and the fourth was Geberit, a manufacturer of plumbing fixtures. All of them showed us the data from their cooling water systems before and after installation of the technology, described their direct experiences with process improvements in their facilities that were not always captured by the laboratory data, but were obvious to operators of the systems involved, and were gracious enough to give our group a guided tour of their facilities.

When I returned to the United States, I wanted to see the results firsthand, so I did a test of the equipment in the cooling water system of a hockey rink near my home. I took water samples from the rink’s cooling water system to a local laboratory for chemical and microbiological assessment before and after installation of the Grander® Water system. The results were obvious, not only in the laboratory reports, but in the general smell and appearance of the water. It was astonishing. I had basically dropped a stainless steel canister full of water treated by Johann Grander’s magnetic motor into the return basin of the cooling system, and in six weeks a complete transformation of the water therein had occurred. But what had actually happened?

The basic idea is that modern water treatment programs “kill” water’s inner/information properties, and this results in a degeneration of the water’s ability to support a thriving, beneficial microbiological community. The sludge and biofilm common to industrial systems is thus ultimately a consequence of water that has been robbed of its life-giving information properties. Leaving the claims of Grander® Water aside, this outcome—the putrefaction of the water’s biota due to improper handling—is exactly what Viktor Schauberger bemoaned as the loss of quality in the environment due to a loss of water’s vital qualities.

With the help of a friend and colleague, I formed a corporation to turn this into a business venture, and subsequently employed the Grander® Water system on three or four other small commercial-industrial sites with cooling water systems, with similar results. It goes without saying that finding sites willing to try this system was quite difficult. My colleague and I made presentations to engineers at probably fifty companies, attended six or eight trade shows, and called probably two hundred companies on the phone, and literally couldn’t give it away. We never once (maybe literally once) received a phone call from the so-called “green building community” despite attendance at several of the early USGBC (US Green Building Council) trade shows. It’s understandable, given the nature of the technology, but it’s also symptomatic of the mindset we were working within. People had no idea how to respond to this. It was frightening to some, delightful to others. Some became upset, or angered even. Some called us snake oil charlatans. They told me this was a scientific impossibility. Some said they couldn’t attach their own reputation to it, but they hoped we did well. Others said, “oh yeah, I’ve heard of that…”

We were ahead of our time and old news all at once.

There’s risk in departing from convention, and in this case, we were advocating for a holistic approach that suggested fostering better conditions within an industrial water system would enable bacteria to regulate themselves. This required taking one’s hands off the wheel, so to speak, and foregoing the conventional biocidal chemistry regimens. The notion that nature can regulate itself when beneficial conditions are maintained—that a partnership with natural processes could actually be deployed for the benefit of an industrial water system—was obviously anathema to the status quo. But it worked.

In the next post we’ll start to explore the various references and scientific ideas I found along the way—both esoteric and conventional—that supported the operation of the Grander® devices, which again, are literally stainless steel canisters full of water. That’s all it takes apparently, to show that our modern scientific understanding is profoundly disconnected from the natural processes at work in the heart of living systems…

The Feminine Science of Water, Part 1

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Course Ideas / Reflections / Science

Water as a subject became interesting to me only as a consequence of my earlier interest in the ideas of Nikola Tesla, John Keely, and Walter Russell, among others. Not only was their work based on notions of sympathy, connectivity, and resonance, it reflected an appreciation for the hidden, subtle levels of the natural order that give rise to the world we see. Perhaps equally important, their ideas emphasized the balance at work in nature—the inherent reciprocity of the male and the female, the expansive and the compressive, the decaying and the growing.

The science that might have emerged from this work would have possessed an appreciation for the order-generating, feminine principle in the natural world—a force more elusive than the masculine half of the coin, which manifested itself most obviously as the explosive, heat-releasing processes at the core of all the great machinery of the Industrial Revolution. This emphasis on the masculine reached its culmination in the destructive power of the atom bomb, in which atoms themselves were ripped apart to release tremendous quantities stored energy. The great advances of twentieth century physics thus eclipsed the possibility of a gentler path that was also available to humanity at the time.

My curiosity led me eventually to the discovery of Viktor Schauberger’s ideas. Viktor was known as “The Water Wizard” because his ideas about water enabled him to construct specially-shaped log flumes that could transport heavy timber out of the Austrian mountains in ways that conventional flumes could not, and which avoided the material losses that occurred when heavy timber sank into rivers and formed intractable “log jams.” My first, and primary, exposure to Viktor’s ideas came from reading Callum Coats’ four-part Eco-Technology series, a compilation of translations of Viktor’s original writings, papers and correspondence, organized into thematic volumes. The first was on water, the second on the subtle structures of the natural world, the third on agriculture, and the fourth on energy—(the sort of energy we use to power homes and automobiles and factories).

Viktor’s work was fascinating to me for many reasons. One is that it had simply been ignored, despite having achieved a number of noteworthy outcomes, and the second is that it felt essential to helping humanity develop a sustainable footprint on this planet. The latter was a primary focus for Viktor, who bemoaned time and again the long-term environmental degradation he felt certain would arise from our blindness to the subtle temperature dynamics at work in the natural world. Indeed, in the 1930’s, though global warming was on the distant horizon even as a concept, he spoke and wrote frequently about the ways in which so-called modern thinking failed to grasp the subtle temperature dynamics at work in soil and stream, on which the maintenance of ecological health depends. We were killing our water, our forests, and our soil, he said, because of management practices rooted in a mindset that could not fathom the finely-tuned, generative processes at work in Nature.

This mindset—my words, not Viktor’s—is the arrogance of a predominately male materialism, a system of thought I would describe as being content with explanations derived only from what is measurable at the time, and sorely lacking in a heart connection with the natural world. It is abstract and logical only, and excludes the intuitive and heart-centered modes of comprehension. Without respect for the possibility that nature is far richer in composition than the mechanisms of which their minds could conceive, and with profound satisfaction for the brutish mechanical assemblages they wrought, this way of thinking ran roughshod over the delicate web of relationships that underwrite the natural world.  This is the mindset of the Titanic, the nuclear bomb, the traffic jam, Love Canal, the soil-killing programs of synthetic fertilization, and other instruments of so-called modern-thinking too numerous to name.

The general erosion of the world’s physical fabric, manifest today in so many ways and mistakenly abridged into the singular concept of “global warming”, is precisely the future against which Schauberger railed. The environmental degradation we’ve witnessed over the past century or two is the inevitable outcome of a system of thought that excludes the generative, feminine half of Nature’s fundamental processes from its purview, and can think only in squares and lines about a world that moves in circles and spirals.

One might say that Viktor was “right” merely on the forecasts he gave, which sadly have come to be, but when I discovered his writing I wanted to know if he was also correct about the nature of water itself. This led me on the journey of discovery I aim to recount in this series of posts, which has made it painfully obvious to me that Viktor Schauberger was absolutely correct in his assessment. It has shown me not only that water, and life itself, are much different than we have conceived them to be, but also that the domineering mindset on which the advances of the last century were based is deeply entrenched in our society. It is not simply a question of our science, but of how all of us think and comprehend our relationships to the world around us.

Where do we even start in developing a more feminine science? What does that even mean? I think it begins with the acknowledgment that wholeness is a fundamental property or condition of the natural world. I further think it means an emphasis on science that acknowledges the value of all life, that acknowledges the wisdom inherent in the natural order, that values qualities as well as quantities, and that places an emphasis on answering questions that would increase our ability to nurture the planet and one another. Such a science would value a deeper understanding of what Nature is being, and how it is to be supported, over predictive power, and would acknowledge that in a universe composed only of life, there is uniqueness at every turn.

Water, I’d say, is a great place to begin, as I hope to show.


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Course Ideas / Reflections

Our world is being stretched. The tightened skin becomes translucent. It’s like a magic trick, only the illusion is punctured instead of unfurled. What’s really there can no longer be hidden. The make-up is sloughing off. It’s challenging, but clearly it’s needed.

We have far to fall. But the ground is close. As close as we make it. That’s because the ground is us. We are the ones who will catch each other. Not the institutions we’ve made. Not the halls of justice, which fail us in our time of need. But people. People are shining. People are making the difference.

It is true we are falling. But we are falling from the limbs of unwholesome dreams. Dreams of empire. Of economic supremacy. Of earthly power and glory.

We invented toilet paper in 1857. If a generation is 25 years, then we’re in the seventh generation since this fantastic invention. That’s one of the brands we use here at home. There is such beautiful irony in this, I swear. I’m not trying to minimize the impact of this disease, but our capabilities today are unprecedented. We probably don’t know the true mortality rate of Covid-19, but let’s call it 3% or 4%. That’s a quarter of the quantity of the world’s population that doesn’t have enough to eat. According to the World Health Organization, there were 2.3 million new tuberculosis cases in 2018 that were attributable to malnutrition.

I comprehend and grieve with those who will face profound suffering in their lives and in their families because of this virus. At the same time, it is remarkable to me that not that long ago the Native Americans faced smallpox that ravaged whole populations, or political forces beyond their control that deceived, pillaged and killed them, or forced them to look on, powerless, as the bison were systematically exterminated. This isn’t like the days when Africans were shackled and dragged across the sea en masse to be beaten and worked to death and spit upon in service of the elite nation-states and economies of the world. These aren’t the days when immigrants to the United States worked themselves to death on docks, in factories and meat packing plants—laboring through disease and famine and drought.

It’s surely not fair to compare one age to the next. We are not those people, and these are not those times. But it’s wrong to think the disease was different in each of these ages. It’s incorrect to think the disease that kills most human beings in our day today is any different than the diseases of the past, because the disease was greed. The disease was specialness, elitism, the hunger for power, and the fear of falling into the misfortunes of the many. The fear of losing what we’ve gained. The fear of being like everyone else. The world hasn’t changed with the onset of Covid-19—it is only being revealed to us once again.

Hopefully we see it for what it is, and hopefully we realize the profound gift we all are to one another.

There is a line from A Course of Love that seems most apropos for this revelation, and that is the idea that in accordance with the Laws of Love, There is no loss, only gain. For what do we lose, but our specialness and our privilege? And what do we gain, but the humbling appreciation of our mutuality?

This quote is from the second Treatise in A Course of Love: An understanding of the mutuality of needs will aid you in being honest about your needs, thus allowing them to be met. Then the need to define or to identify them ceases. Your needs only continue to be brought to your awareness as needs until your trust in their immediate and ongoing fulfillment is complete. Once this trust is realized you will no longer think in terms of needs at all. Once you are no longer concerned with needs and the meeting of needs you will no longer be concerned with special relationships. You will realize that there is no loss but only gain involved in letting them go.

It is specialness that distorts the truth. The truth that all can be provided for.

These are hardly the worst of the worst times that we have faced. And again, with a full heart for those who suffer directly as a result of this disease, and for all those who suffer from all of the various diseases manifest in our world, I would like to say that Covid-19 is gentle as far as wake-up calls go. It is not a scourge, but a crack in the façade of a normalcy that isn’t working, and hasn’t been working, and which we don’t know how to fix without a nudge or two in the direction of our shared humanity.

I am humbled by those delivering groceries to the elderly, by those singing opera from the balconies, by those working from home while caring for their children. I had a conference call last week: five senior managers in track suits at their laptops. It was heartening. We are all the same. Not in our fear, but in our needs. In our humanity. And when we acknowledge this, when we no longer accept as status quo the specialness and power-mongering that divide us, the world will transform.

And it will be good.

What Are Organisms?

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Book Reviews

What is an organism?

It’s not an easy question to answer. When faced with such a challenge, it is natural to employ metaphors that help us formulate some preliminary ideas about what it is we’re dealing with. These metaphors relate something that is mysterious to us, like the organism, to one that is well known to us, such as the machine. We know what machines are, and generally how they function, and so this metaphor gives us a point of entry into the analysis of organisms. What are the organism’s parts? How do they interact? When the organism breaks down, what parts must be repaired or replaced? Where does the energy come from that makes it work? And so on and so forth.

The challenge in our reliance on metaphors is that they can limit our understanding as easily as they can expand it. When faced with a subject as tantalizing as the study of organisms, the metaphor can preclude us from noticing essential qualities of their structure or organization, because the map, in its usefulness, inadvertently becomes the territory. It’s not that we don’t recognize these differences—we know that machines do not repair themselves, grow, or reproduce for instance, while organisms do—but there is a tendency to insist the metaphor still holds. A sufficiently complex machine, for instance, might very well do these things. And so we can continue to classify the organism as a machine, albeit an especially profound one, and then continue our search for mechanisms that underlie its various functions. The result can be misleading: the conflation of machinery with life itself, or the reduction of life to apparatus alone.

Machines as we know them today are still rather brute devices that rely on simplistic physical and chemical relationships. Cranks, pulleys and shafts convey forces. Fuel and oxygen combust to release energy in confined spaces. Electricity and magnetism are channeled through tiny circuits, or harnessed to produce linear or rotary motion in subassemblies. And we can do amazing things with this toolkit. But we cannot explain organisms. What if the machine model obfuscates fundamental questions about organisms that might lead to new insights? To what then, might we compare life, if not a machine?

In Mae-Wan Ho’s book The Rainbow and the Worm, she shows that other metaphors of the organism are equally relevant—the jazz band, the liquid crystal, and the rainbow, among others. She focuses on the intersection of twenty-first century physics with modern biology to show that organisms are at least as advanced in the mechanisms they deploy as our present understanding of the natural world allows us to comprehend.

There are two key aspects of biological systems that Mae-Wan highlights. The first is that life exhibits a comprehensive dynamic order at the quantum scale, which none of the machinery we know today does. Quantum mechanics has certainly played a vital role in our technological progress, and is essential to such technologies as GPS, satellite communications, smartphones, computers, and magnetic imaging, but it is not the case that the comprehensive atomic structure of the physical devices we use everyday is contingent upon these functions. For a few discrete subsystems or subassemblies it may be, but for the bulk of the material in a manufactured object, the dynamic interrelationships of the atomic structure are irrelevant to the object’s core function. The classical properties alone are sufficient. This is not the case with organisms.

Quantum mechanics is known today for its spookiness, but at its foundation it resolved a couple of key questions that classical mechanics could not. It’s worth noting that none of these early breakthroughs were based upon the head-scratching quantum mechanics that receives most of the press these days. They were based on the idea that energy, matter and light exist in minimum, discrete quantities. Two key challenges of classical theories that were resolved by this realization were the so-called ultraviolet catastrophe and the mystery of the electron’s orbit around the atom.

The former is the theoretical prediction that the radiant energy emitted from objects at high temperatures should approach infinity, but it does not. The reason is the quantum. With regards to the latter, in classical mechanics the electron should emit electromagnetic radiation as it flies around the atom, causing it to lose energy and crash into the nucleus. But it doesn’t. The reason is that quantum physics only allows electrons to occupy specific orbitals, and they don’t lose energy by zooming around in a given orbital, only by changing orbits, which means atoms don’t arbitrarily collapse.

It turns out that the structure of living organisms is entirely dependent on these aspects of quantum physics. In contrast to systems of relatively disorganized molecules like chicken soup, the atmosphere, or the water in the sea, organisms store a considerably higher fraction of their energy in bound quantum states. By the latter I mean atoms linked together by stable chemical bonds that store a great deal of energy, but are stable because of the quantum physics described above. Life stores energy in molecular trapdoors for later retrieval. Machines do not do this.

Mae-Wan notes that if all of the energy contained in living organisms were converted to thermal energy—as opposed to the electronic form in which it is actually stored and utilized—the human body temperature would be upwards of 3,000 degrees Kelvin. To put this in perspective, the surface of the Earth is about 288 degrees Kelvin, and the surface of the sun about 5,780 degrees Kelvin. Thankfully for us, we are not the thermal engines we thought we were.

Related to this, not only do organisms store energy electronically, they use it electronically. Living organisms utilize energy with close to 100% efficiency when transforming it from one form to another. This is remarkable when one considers that the electricity grid of an industrialized nation operates at about 40% efficiency, plus or minus, when converting the stored chemical energy of fossil fuels to delivered electricity. (Renewable electricity systems are even less efficient, though efficiency is not really a meaningful metric to apply when comparing them to fossil-fuel based technologies.)  The chemical energy of hydrocarbons such as oil and natural gas is in many ways similar to the stored energy in living cells—the energy is contained in the stable bonds that link one atom to the next to form large structures of carbon and hydrogen—but our industrial processes come nowhere close to the efficiency of living organisms in converting such energy into actual work. As organisms, we move our muscles, breath, digest food, sing opera, and think with essentially zero energetic waste. It’s not that organisms don’t use energy. They do. But unlike machines, they use it one quantum at a time.

A second key element of Mae-Wan’s synthesis in The Rainbow and the Worm is long-range order, or coherence. This is a slightly complicated subject in that coherence is a word that could have both classical and quantum physics meanings, but the essence of the two is very similar. Classical coherence is the condition in which a system of oscillators share a common phase. You could imagine several tuning forks, each with the same natural frequency. If you struck them all at roughly the same time, they would each ring with the same tone, but due to inherent variations in when you actually struck each one, they would not initially be in phase. Over some period of time, however, because the energy they exchange with one another through sound waves impacts their vibrations, they would settle into a condition in which they not only rang with the same tone, but did so in phase.

Quantum coherence is more difficult for me to distinguish or fully understand, but real world examples are lasers and superconductivity. In a laser, the light emitted from a large population of atoms is the same frequency, and, like the classical definition above, is completely in phase. This is because all of the electrons that are changing state to emit the light are undergoing a transition from the identical high energy orbit to the identical low energy orbit in their respective atoms. The light they each emit is thus of the same frequency. In a laser, there are mechanisms in place to “pump” the system which results in a synchronicity of the light emissions. (Interestingly, Mae-Wan notes that the organisms may utilize metabolic “pumping” for similar purposes in the body.) Superconductivity occurs when electricity can be conveyed through a conductor with zero resistance. This also is related to a global phase relationship in the electrons within the material. This type of coherence exists at the quantum scale, but is quite similar to the classical coherence described above.

But in the quantum world there is another sort of coherence, and this occurs when various possible states of a system are in phase. This is where we get into the spookier realities of quantum mechanics, in which, for instance, one atom or electron can be said to occupy multiple states simultaneously. This state is a coherent one, because all the possible states are in phase, and it is only when we make a measurement, or when the system otherwise interacts with the environment, that a particular state is selected. It does this by “de-cohering”, or breaking phase with the other possible states. It is this type of coherence that we are attempting to leverage in quantum computing. I believe it is this type of coherence that has been observed in the photosynthetic systems of organisms.

I think the important aspect of this topic overall is what coherence affords to the systems in which it exists. Mae-Wan points to several salient features of coherent systems. She writes, “Coherent excitations can account for many of the most characteristic properties of living organisms that I have drawn your attention to at the beginning of this book: long range order and coordination; rapid and efficiency energy transfer, as well as extreme sensitivity to specific signals.”

A couple of key examples Mae-Wan uses are the sensitivity of the human eye to an individual photon, which relies on the amplification of the signal by thousands of receptors with virtual simultaneity, and the processes associated with muscle contraction, in which billions of molecular operations per second are carried out with perfect coordination. With regards to the latter, she cites an experiment in which the energy from individual ATP molecules was utilized by four cycles of cross-bridge formation between actin and myosin—the fundamental, repeated action associated with muscle contraction. How could the energy from one molecule be shared over four individual cycles? Through coherence, she says, which allows for multi-mode storage and transfer of energy in both space and time.

This is where the jazz band analogy comes into play. Various members of an ensemble may depart temporarily from a common beat, but after enough measures there will be a return to the original “heartbeat” of the piece. The jazz band metaphor is about multiple rhythms occurring simultaneously without loss of the overarching unity that forms the whole. In the example of the muscle contraction, energy is dispersed over all of the various modes of the system, which allows it to be used in non-linear ways.

This might all sound like science fiction, but there is beautiful physical evidence for this idea. Using a microscopy technique known to reveal the crystalline order of various mineral specimens, Mae-Wan and her collaborators showed that the molecular structure of living tissue exists in a liquid crystalline state. The molecular order of this state is visible as dynamic bands of color within the living tissue—colors that are visible because the tissue exhibits the property of birefringence (which it loses quickly when the tissue dies).  The images on the cover of her book below were developed using this microscopy technique. Speaking of this discovery, she writes, “The colour generated and its intensity (the brightness) depends respectively on the structure of the particular molecules (the intrinsic anisotropy of the molecules) and their degree of coherent order.” (Emphasis contained in the original.)

So what is an organism then? Who knows!? What we can say is that unlike any machinery we’ve invented to date, it is a self-directed energetic structure of nested, multi-modal order. It is something like a symphony, or a jazz band—a dynamically evolving wholeness in which each part is an integral expression of the wholeness itself. What I love most about The Rainbow and the Worm is Mae-Wan’s demonstration that our understanding of life is limited only by our imagination…

The Blind Watchmaker, Cont’d

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Book Reviews / Reflections / Science

This week I finished the audio version of The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins, which I discussed in my previous post, and I’d like to give a few responses to the book as a whole now that I’ve completed it.

Dawkins’ overall objective with this work is to describe how the dizzying mélange of organized complexity we find in the biological world can be explained by the properties of non-living matter, the blind mutations of genetic material in organisms, and the power of cumulative selection. He does an admirable job of this, but by the time I’d completed the book I realized I had questions about things that weren’t discussed by Dawkins. Also, the digressions he chose to make at the expense of adhering to the essential components of his explanatory thesis, ultimately disappointed me.

One of the most important assertions of the book is that there’s no point in the process of evolution we cannot explain from the previous. The trick to understanding the stunning complexity we behold in the world around us is to take something bedazzling, like the eye, and then imagine a series of very small steps that might have occurred over a very, very long time to produce it. If you put some sincere effort into it, says Dawkins, you’ll see there is some step-size small enough that you are able to imagine it. I agree this is doable.

What’s hard to envision is how there’s enough time for all of the teeny-tiny steps to have occurred, but Dawkins says that’s not supposed to be obvious. Our brains are not adapted to assess what a million years of time really is, never mind billions. An hour, sure. A lifetime, of course. We have some basic comprehension of a decade, a few generations of family, a century. Maybe a millennium. But a million years? It’s like staring into the sun.

The truth, he says, is that there’s been plenty of time. At known mutation rates, one biologist Dawkins referenced—whose name unfortunately escapes me—has calculated that a mouse could evolve to be the size of an elephant in just 60,000 years, if it weren’t for the obvious push-back such a mouse would receive from the forces of natural selection. In short, time is not the issue.

(There’s also chance enough for the really tricky parts, but that’s for another day.)

Natural selection is a cumulative selection process, meaning that it operates on inherited characteristics, and at each step of the way selects only the best-adapted individuals for reproduction. Because of its cumulative nature, it is more powerful than we may guess. It is sensitive, for instance, to the minuscule advantage delivered by each of the very small steps we envisioned above. In one example—the development of wings—he notes that a small flap of skin between the limbs or fingers of a rodent, no matter how small it might be, would help them navigate gaps between tree branches with just that much more reach and control. As a result, the organisms possessing this dermal oddity would have an advantage.

But how does such a sensitive process work when an organism is developing everything at once—eyes, ears, livers, brains, wings, bones, skin, hair, hearts, digestive tracts, vocal chords, etc.? Do we break all of those into tiny steps and overlay them? Clearly some of these must precede others, so it’s never really all at once. But it’s also clear that organisms evolve as wholes—simultaneously, if you will, with respect to one another, the environment, and the characteristics they already possess, which are already profoundly interwoven. Dawkins never addresses the question of how such a highly sensitive process selects for all of these mutually interacting adaptations concurrently. It might be a bad question on my part—so bad he didn’t think it needed to be addressed—but I’m curious.

In a chapter that comes much later, he provides an explanation for why the fossil record doesn’t show a steady development of particular features. Skull sizes in mammals for instance, would in theory follow some sort of progression. As brains enlarged in response to the increasing complexity of physical organisms and the adaptive advantage of intelligence, skull sizes had to increase to suit. More recent fossils should in general have larger skulls than earlier ones. That’s not always the case, but Dawkins has a reasonable explanation.

At any given time, variations in the expression of a given trait between members of the same species can be fairly significant. The largest human brains are about 40% larger by volume than the smallest ones, for instance. Given how spotty the fossil record is, we shouldn’t expect to discover a particular linear progression. This explanation makes sense in and of itself, but it left me uncertain about how to square the highly sensitive form of natural selection described above with the normal statistical variation for a trait within a species. Is there a contradiction here? I don’t know enough biology to know. It seems that either a tiny difference matters profoundly, or it doesn’t, right? I can imagine that the answer involves the phrase “it’s complicated,” and that both principles apply at different times, based on conditions and context. But Dawkins doesn’t address this. Again, I found myself wanting to understand how biologists may have reconciled these seemingly different conditions.

I’m running out of space here, but two more items were notable by omission. First, consciousness is not addressed at all. This is in keeping with the paradigm of hierarchical reductionism in which Dawkins operates, which he describes in one of the opening chapters. Presumably consciousness is no different qualitatively—in terms of explaining its origin—than mating behaviors or eyeballs. As such, there’s no real need to discuss it. For me, though, it’s an intriguing omission. I’m not sure that the equation of consciousness with rabbit ears rises to the level of common sense just yet.

It’s axiomatic, however, for Dawkins. He postulates (without saying this explicitly) a universe in which consciousness is the product of material evolution, and once he does this, the use of evolutionary theory to prove such a vantage becomes a circular argument. No more or less circular than a theist positing a God and finding evidence for this assertion, but circular nonetheless, so I can see why he leaves it alone. What he does feel obligated to emphasize is that he prefers his own form of circular argument to the ones made by “redneck creationists”—a preference the astute reader has comprehended long before he allows himself the satisfaction of name-calling.

Second, there is very little discussion of how the genome actually relates to the formation of the body itself. There is a really interesting passage on embryological development, but it is very high level. What Dawkins doesn’t address head-on is the need for particular types of relationships between genes and features. His examples throughout the book hinge upon the implication that infinitesimal differences in organisms not only afford them a reproductive advantage, but are inheritable, which means there must be clear genetic distinctions between an organism with a winglet that produces a few square millimeters of skin between two bones and one with a winglet a few square millimeters larger, and one with a winglet a few square millimeters larger than that, and so on.

One can easily imagine a genetic algorithm to produce this—there might be a gene that stores a value for how much skin to produce in a particular location, that could be adjusted like the volume dial on a radio—but that’s hardly the point. Dawkins himself argues that the genetic code is more like a recipe than a blueprint for each and every bit of tissue, so how does this work? Without a hereditary mechanism that is as granular as the countless tiny steps taken by evolution itself, the explanation given by Dawkins would break down. Aside from being a necessary element to deliver a cogent thesis, the question is also a fascinating one, but it is left untouched. We are left to assume that it’s perfectly obvious the genetic algorithms within an organism’s DNA contain the specificity and granularity required to accommodate, uniquely, each digitized step in evolutionary unfolding.

Given the state of genetics at the time the book was written, maybe Dawkins wished he could have said more on the subject, too. I would have much rather he mused on this topic than on the theory of how life might have begun as self-replicating crystals in seasonal streams, or the differences between various forms of taxonomy, or on disputes between various fields of evolutionary research. He included these topics principally to disarm the theists, I believe, not because they’re vital to an explanation of adaptive complexity.

This leads to the central failing of the book as a whole for me: it left intriguing scientific questions central to his argument untouched, and focused on philosophical pursuits instead. The result is a book that suffers for being of two minds. We lose the incandescent thread of wonder at life’s uncanny success, and find ourselves instead as audience to a squabble. For me there’s no squabble per se, so this was a distraction. But the questions raised were enjoyable to ponder, and I look forward to finding other works and authors in the future who may have addressed such questions.

Nevermind the Watches

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Book Reviews / Reflections / Science

This holiday season I received a gift subscription to Audible, and because I spend most of my reading time with works of fiction, I thought I’d use the daily commute for non-fiction. The first book I chose was Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker. For reasons I cannot explain, I found myself curious recently about the theory of evolution, how it has evolved with the emergence of genetics, and what some of the open questions and modern findings are.

I should note that as I sit to write this post I’m about half way through the book, and very much enjoying it—the science in particular. Dawkins has a great knack for using readily accessible analogs of complex technical issues to introduce them, and then anticipating all the reasons why his readers might find those examples to be limited, and addressing those concerns as he moves deeper into a given subject. I marveled alongside of Dawkins at the prowess of bat echolocation, at the myriad creative possibilities a simple computer program with just nine “genes” could “discover”, and at the molecular micro-machines within our cells that spin and whirl and copy and catalyze in every instant of our existence. I’ve also enjoyed his reference to seminal experiments in modern biology that demonstrate the veracity of various points that he makes.

Dawkins’ proselytizing, however, is far less intriguing.

In periodic asides, Dawkins feels obliged to note that everything he’s just explained demolishes theism in general, and intelligent design arguments in particular. I understand the importance he places on this topic, given his personal position on the subject, but I find his need to interject on such matters a distraction from the very enjoyable and well-written insights into the science of evolution. One reason for this reaction is that his approach to the subject is quite shallow as compared to his thinking on the subject of evolution.

He writes as if the question of what the universe is, and how it came to be, may be reduced to a single multiple-choice question with but two answers. One must be right. The other wrong. And because of the black and white nature of the subject, it’s perfectly okay if he speaks pejoratively about and/or trivializes those he disagrees with. Readers like myself, who don’t have any issue with evolutionary theory, but still don’t think the case is closed with regards to what the universe actually is, how it came into being, or how it functions at the deepest level, find ourselves annoyed by Dawkins treatment of this subject. I did, at any rate. The only option offered aside from the position for which he advocates is to be a simpleton, and I think it’s unfortunate that Dawkins chose to adopt this artificial taxonomy of human thought.

I want to reply to this a bit, and begin by noting that the danger in doing so is the same danger Dawkins faces by electing to engage with the subject as he has. It’s the same danger we face in any argument on a complex subject that we reduce to a stark polarity. We’re obligated by the very context of the discussion to deploy facts as foot soldiers in an argument, and we’ve lost the opportunity to simply appreciate them with the gentle touch of an open mind. We find ourselves quickly choosing sides, and this has consequences to the conversation. Ultimately, it prevents creative dialogue from occurring, and all that can be sustained are bilateral rhetorical skirmishes. These are pointless. The marketplace of ideas where I prefer to do my shopping is not a bilateral monopoly, but something closer to perfect competition. Perhaps this is the market in which Dawkins actually operates—I hope so—and he simply aims to shrink it as much as possible to suit his literary purposes.

I very much enjoy the way Richard’s mind works when he sticks to the asking and answering of interesting scientific questions, so I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt and suggest that his past experiences have made it important for him to address a particular subset of the overall marketplace of ideas. In other words, people like me probably don’t trouble him all that much, while people of a much more fundamental Biblical bent (as one example) probably do. I can understand that, and appreciate his passion, even if I don’t agree from my vantage with his seemingly perpetual need to challenge this particular subset of society to a duel.

One reason I disagree with his need to do this is that it marginalizes anyone who doesn’t align strongly with one of the two positions he sustains in his commentary. It shrinks the conversation, and to borrow from ideas I think he would potentially endorse, a society faced with an evolutionary crisis as we are today that only explores two possible memetic solutions to its difficulty would be departing from the strategies that served biological evolution so well in the past. My understanding is that evolution casts a wide net in the possible space of solutions so as to explore as many alternatives as possible.

The retort might be that because a person like me is in the minority, and not winning the memetic competition for air waves, pages printed per year, clicks on the internet, or some other such datum that corresponds to reproductive fitness, that evolution is working perfectly fine. The ideas that people like me carry are simply “losing” in the processes of cumulative selection at work in our world. So all is well.

This just shows how complicated these issues are. We can deploy them on any side of the argument we wish, in logically consistent ways. Yet neither of the two sides currently contesting this issue may be “ultimately” right. Because our planet is in the midst of an evolutionary crisis—a point in which collective transformation is urgently required—winning the battle of ideas, but losing the war of planetary stability for all species would be fruitless. To be “ultimately” right in this case is to land upon solutions to the challenges we face that are best for the planetary environment as a whole, and which allow for prosperous and peaceful human cohabitation with one another and all of life. It’s not clear to me that either of the bilateral positions to which Dawkins elects to give credence are going to be ultimately right.

Dawkins obviously feels strongly that regardless of what people with quieter voices and lesser public influence such as myself may think, those who believe in an intelligently-designed universe are “ultimately” wrong—meaning, he must believe in his heart of hearts there is no way for us to navigate the present planetary crisis while certain ideas remain viable. This is not something I’m prepared to agree with, because I think the very challenge we face is that of transcending the idea which says “my” survival, at the expense of “yours”, is acceptable. In other words, it is polarity itself that we must find our way beyond. The problem is not necessarily the other side of the coin, but the coin itself as we have minted it.

If evolution has taught us anything, I think it is that life solves problems by transforming and expanding on what came before it. Likewise, I believe transformation is required, but not transformation of one particular element of the meme pool at the expense of another. I believe we must evolve together, somehow, and what we must evolve beyond is the inherently destructive perception of polarity. In this sense, Dawkins’ work underscores the true challenge before us, though it does precious little to resolve it.

Restitution (A Short Story)

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I’m pleased to share that my short story Restitution will appear in the pending Fall/Winter issue of the Tahoma Literary Review. I believe printed and digital copies will both be available for purchase next week, and meanwhile an audible version of the issue has been uploaded on the TLR Soundcloud page that is freely available.

This was my first foray into making a voice recording of my writing, and I must confess a challenge. I owe a debt of gratitude to my old friend Hariod, who told me with all the British eloquence he could muster that my first version simply wouldn’t do. Suffice to say he encouraged me to keep at it, and this was invaluable. (He also read early drafts of this piece and several of his proposed edits are in the final version.)

I’m not really set up for this sort of thing, so finding a quiet spot in the house in which to work was the first challenge. One night the pitter-patter of a soft rain on the windows put me out of commission. Another evening I shut-off the breaker to the heating system. The town fire alarm went off in the middle of one section, and I realized we have more dogs in the neighborhood than I thought. Eventually I realized the room I had selected for this work possessed the harmonic subtleties of a trash can. By then I could hardly stand to look at the piece anymore.

That was the easy part, though.

Actually keeping sufficient concentration to add inflection and range to the work was all but impossible for me to do for long stretches. And for me, a long stretch was anything over about 3-4 minutes. I had no idea what inflections to even add until I’d been reduced to mumbles at least four or five times per passage. Then something would start to make sense. It was a bit like writing in that regard–only instead of words, it was pitch and inflection that I fumbled in the dark to grasp. I realized the voice in my head, though meaningful to me, is not profoundly theatrical. The process was like learning to dribble a basketball—the timing of my voice and the syllables slapped against one another, and often missed entirely. My hat’s off to professional narrators and seasoned readers.

Each of the contributors was asked to give a little background on the origins of their work, and I thought I’d share that with you here:

This piece began as a reflection on the idea that our woundedness—the unhealed places within us that drive us apart—may ultimately be redeemed. In particular, I was interested in the idea that the process of redemption transcends the individual. The process of making whole not only elides our conscious direction, it touches each of us simultaneously. We are all made whole at once, in essence. This piece was part of a series that I wrote to explore the movement of grace in our lives—to examine those moments when we lose ourselves, only to find ourselves.

Working with TLR was a great experience for me. The team there was professional, courteous and insightful, and I hope that, if you can, you’ll consider supporting their work.

Hope you enjoy!

The Heart Opens Into the Tongue

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The way
a cloud breaks,
after wicking water from the sky
for several days of a moon’s turn inward,
and a droplet of water taps a leaf
on its way to the ground, and says,
I have heard you,
is the way that we are blessed:
with premonitions
of what has already been given.

My heart is Bell’s Inequality.
On one side there is meaning
and on the other side there is only its absence.
But the pulse in the middle confirms:
this land is uneven,
the magpie speaks,
there are no hidden variables to my existence.
I have always been broken open.
I have always known this sky could weep.

In Chaco Canyon they smoke for the rain.
The elders. Their faces drawn by the sun.
Their innards hollowed.
Their memories not their own.

If the pipes are not smoked it is only the weather.

But if hearts touch the sky,
and say, without you, I would not be,
then what rains down is a reply,
a landscape of voices in an organ of starlight.

The plants have their instructions in any case.
The weather they can endure. For a while.
But they flower when the circle is closed.
When the Truth is our only ambition.
And ambition is empty.

Reality is only a ruse when
we turn our back on it
and count to ten.
The Truth, then, like shoe leather,
tires our teeth. We cannot swallow.
We are caught with full mouths.
Once it was a game,
and now it is tragic.

If one ounce of water is random, then they all are.
And if one is the voice of my heart,
and one leaf is wakened by this pattering high five,
then they all are.
There is nothing to be desecrated but us,
because it is all just one thing or the other.
And the other is thingless.

There can’t be some things we know and some that we don’t.
There can’t be some things sacred and some that aren’t.
There can’t be one heart awake, and others still dreaming.
But we can always pretend.

We can call it the weather.

A mind apart from the heart is an experiment,
a poorly worded question,
and look what it has gotten us.
Let’s have all the papers by Friday, shall we?
Before the lights go out and the sky shakes
and the reeds bend low to the ground
and the snakes shelter under the stones
and the bluebirds cloister close to the trunk.

There is an antidote, of course,
an antidote to us,
but it can only be sung.
Try to sing, and you discover your pieces.
My mind knows only words.
My heart only music.
My teeth are tired,
and my tongue is caught in the middle.
The most delicate muscle in my body,
they say it is where the heart opens,
and I am holding it out to the sky
like a leaf.

Like all of us, I am waiting,
for what we know is to come.

Where We Are

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The weeds in my heart have gone to tassel.
They are purple and rose edged
in the soft light from Beyond.

The sun here is setting, rising, calling, giving, knowing, holding, flying, burning.
And I am listening, watching, walking, dreaming, dying, wishing, burning.
Shadows of the unkempt reeds are dancing together on the ground.
They are playing in the mud without getting wet.

A world without shadows, I whisper, is a world without magic.

I’ve been away,
waiting for the train,
adjusting my shirt sleeves,
leaning into the wind,
reading a magazine,
trying to get the skin of a green pepper
off the side of my molar with one pinky,
picking an argument with this one article’s author.
He’s of the opinion we need another opinion.
He is paid to have an opinion.
And I wonder:
Does he always have one?
Or does he wander, like me,
back to this place we’ve always been,
where opinion is like a flat washer
you find in your pocket
when you’re following some moonlit trail
through the wilderness.
It’s not particularly harmful, this disc of metal.
If you look through the middle of it
the bear staring down at you
from the other side of the valley
may come into focus.
Or maybe you’ll trip over a root.

This morning I happened to notice:
One, time is in charge of the décor in my heart.
And two, the weeds in this place have all gone to tassel.

People are disembarking from their trains
and I decide not to get on the train
so there’s a void that remains
in the space where everyone was. Now
all those leaving know where they are going
but me, and they are getting there, alright—
you can just tell,
and I think, for some reason,
not out loud, just for me and you,
that I am already there.
I am already there…
And you are here with me.

This is where we are.
Where is there to go?

They’re not really weeds, anyway.
Though they have gone to tassel.
They’re markers. Raised hands.
Beings with roots that burrow deep in the mud.
When I began to harvest them
they organized a conference in my mind
about raft-building and the birds came
and ate all the secrets that fell on the ground
from the crumbling tassels
and flew away
and now I am after them,
floating on the river of my heart,
and I’m picking an argument with the author
of this one article because I wonder how—
how could you possibly have an opinion
when you are a river lengthening forever
across the land from one end to the next
wondering where those birds went?

Onyx feathers. Blue feathers. Red feathers.
A splash of light and all is revealed.
My longing coalesces.

They are out there, just over the bank,
singing the songs that live inside them.
They are visible if I look through the tasseled reed heads,
through the empty place at the center of my flat washer.

They are defecating those secrets right now
from the tips of branches and hollow reeds,
Sowing my next breath’s crop of yearning.