Friday, July 28, 2017

On Some Recent Reading





An interesting contretemps appears in the letters section of the July 2017 Scientific American. The dispute is documented under the title "A Cosmic Controversy". To the extent that I can follow the debate, the divisive issue is nothing less than the applicability of the scientific method to cosmology.

In February 2017, Anna Iljas, Paul J. Steinhardt and Abraham Loeb published a Scientific American article called "Pop goes the Universe." This essay reports on mathematical speculation that the universe did not begin with a "big bang" – that is, an extremely rapid expansion – but instead "with a bounce from a previously contracting cosmos." Mathematical models based on a "bounce" predict that our universe is a bubble among an infinity of other bubbles, each representing another universe. The laws of physics in our universe may differ radically from the physical and mathematical laws applicable in other universes. This cosmology implies an infinity of universes derived and functional according to an infinitely varied set of constitutions defining their physical characteristics. In this setting, the authors say that inflationary cosmology "cannot claim to be evaluated using the scientific method" and, further, assert that the proponents of standard form inflationary cosmology" have "discard(ed) one of (science’s) defining properties: empirical testability". Thus, inflationary cosmology is "some kind of nonempirical science."

This argument is met with outrage in a letter signed by 33 astrophysicists and cosmologist affiliated with Cambridge, Stanford, MIT, the Planck collaboration and others. The scientists are international – there are French, American, British, Canadians, and Russians represented by the letter. I assume the writers are a who’s who of cosmology – the list of authors includes Stephen Hawkings. The gist of the correspondence is that all of the participating signatories believe very strongly in empirical science and the scientific model. They adduce several arguments for the proposition that empirical test data (or observed natural phenomena) support their "Big Bang" inflationary cosmology. Several paragraphs argue that mathematical predictions as to the mass-density of the universe predicted by their inflationary cosmology have, in fact, been confirmed by measurements of fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background radiation. In this context, they cite measurements made by satellite experiments, specifically the Planck satellite and the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe. (A cynical observer might say that these 33 scientists are obligated to maintain that their cosmology model is testable to support very substantial public and private grants as well as other funding upon which their livelihood is based – for instance, the scientists affiliated with the "Planck collaboration" would seem to have an investment in the "Planck satellite." If there’s nothing to test, then, no money needs to be dedicated to experimental work.)

The authors of the original article (Iljas, Steinhardt, and Loeb) respond that "the outcome of inflation is highly sensitive to initial conditions." Therefore, they write that "inflation generically leads to an eternal inflation and, consequently, a multiverse – an infinite diversity of outcomes." Further, they note that "if inflation produces a multiverse...(in which) ‘anything that can happen will happen’... it makes no sense whatsoever to talk about predictions." The cosmic bounce that Iljas, Steinhardt and Loeb imagine as the inception of our universe also "gives an infinite diversity of outcomes with none preferred over any other."

In fact, the adversaries to this controversy seem to be talking past one another. Indeed, I’m not convinced that there is any dispute. Stephen Hawkings and his 32 allies seem to be saying that within our universe, a place constitutionally governed by knowable physical laws, evidence suggests that everything began with a rapid inflationary expansion, a Big Bang. But there may be other universes in existence that have a wholly different morphology, are governed by different mathematical laws, and that, therefore, have different characteristics. We can’t know about these universes – at least, at present and, therefore, their characteristics are a matter for speculation, but not scientific study. Hence, the controversy between the two groups of scientists turns on the definition of "reality." For Hawkings et. al., reality is defined as the system that we can empirically test, that is, subject to mathematical analysis with objectively replicable results – in our universe, Hawkings et. al say that the "scientific method" is alive, well, and useful (and supports a rapid inflationary model). Steinhardt and company take a larger view – for them, reality contains an infinite number of universes in which anything is possible. If anything is possible, then, the scientific method does not deliver a true or useful outcome in all universes – if this correct, and the three "bounce" cosmologists believe it is mathematically plausible, then, reality defined as containing multiverses does not always follow principles that are objectively testable.

Simply stated, objective empirical evidence supports Hawkings’ view that our universe proceeds from a Big Bang. The three dissenting scientists, probably, wouldn’t contest this notion. Their analysis however asserts that "reality", a concept infinitely larger than the inflationary universe in which we happen to live, contains an infinite number of universes and, therefore, an infinite number of places where the scientific method doesn’t apply – that’s because there are infinite number of universes where our rules don’t exist or where there are no rules at all.

This point, I think, is conceded in this text from the letter signed by the 33 physicists. Thus: "...although the possibility of a multiverse is an active area of study, this possibility in no way interferes with the empirical testability of inflation. If the multiverse picture is valid, then the Standard Model (rapid inflation from Big Bang) would be properly understood as a description of the physics in our visible universe, and similarly the models of inflation that are being refined by current observations would describe the ways inflation can happen in our particular part of the universe..."

These arguments spiral into metaphysics in part as a result of the mathematics of infinity. This morning, as I was brushing my teeth in my basement toilet, I noticed a black beetle, about a half inch long, trying to burrow into the space between the carpet and the baseboard of the wall. I thought about killing the beetle by crushing it with a magazine or rescuing it by lifting it off the carpet and hustling it outside. The conflict between these two ideas paralyzed me and I didn’t do anything. But there is a universe in which I crush the beetle and flush it down the toilet – not one universe, in fact, but an infinite number of them. And there is a universe in which I rescue the beetle, iterated an infinite number of times. And there is a universe in which the beetle is brushing his teeth and I am wriggling into into the crevasse between the carpet and wall – in an infinite number of those universes, the beetle rescues me and sets me outside; similarly, in an infinite number of those universes, I am crushed and flushed down the toilet. Finally, there are an infinite number of universes in which the beetle and I occupy different spaces but are also in exactly the same location – that is, violating rules of our universe – but consistent with the rules of another universe, or, more properly stated, an infinite number of such universes where separation in space is exactly identical with occupying the same space. There is a universe where you apprehend this argument by telepathy alone, a universe where this text was typed by a million million monkeys hammering away at a million million typewriters. And there is a universe where this sentence contains a typographical era and a universe in which the typographical error states the exact name of God.



Anton Gag (rhymes with "jog") was born in Bohemia in 1859 and migrated to the New Ulm, Minnesota about 20 years later. A skilled artist, Gag earned his living by painting and making murals. His art work decorates the dome and walls of the New Ulm Catholic church.

New Ulm was attacked by the Dakota Indians in the summer of 1862 and was the site of ferocious house-to-house combat. The beleagured German settlers ultimately repelled the Dakota army, probably more than 1500 warriors, but the town was burned to the ground with many casualties among the defenders. The town’s heroic defense is an important subject in Gag’s work – there is a majestic canvas by the artist in the State Capitol showing a war party of bronzed Indians, heroic figures with classical proportioned bare torsos attacking the burning village. The Dakota warriors led by a chief on a beautiful white horse have taken cover in a corn field and smoky flames rise from the outbuildings of the city. In the Brown County Historical Society, there is a barrel head from a beer cask painted with a lively impressionistic scene of combatants huddled behind a barricade of beer barrels similar to the one that has been here used as a commemorative canvas: smoke rises from the defender’s rifles and orange flames gut buildings and the attacking Indians are a sort of colorful wave rising around the chief on the white horse. The paint on the barrel head is impasto, thickly applied, and it has an embattled quality. Gag’s most ambitious painting is a panoramic mural, made to be unscrolled frame by frame, for a paying public. The mural shows various scenes from the Dakota Conflict of 1862 and was designed and painted by Gag with several other New Ulm Bohemian artists. The panorama is in a poor state of preservation and there are no funds available to conserve an object with literally incendiary subject matter – many of the images are lurid portraits of Dakota atrocities. It is a shame, however, that this impressive work can no longer be seen – the panorama was designed to be illumined by candle or gas-light projected through the huge scrolls translucent panels; therefore, the paint application is extremely dainty and subtle and the panorama’s pale translucent washes give the impression of a giant, exquisitely executed water-color. No matter how lurid the massacre shown, the landscape is always gorgeously rendered and gives the impression of the fresh, vivid light of dawn.

Gag raised 7 children in a big Queen Anne style house in New Ulm. You can visit the place, now open as a museum. The museum is not so much concerned with Anton Gag as with his talented daughter, Wanda. Gag passed on the secrets of his craft to Wanda and regarded her as exceptionally skilled. He probably understood that her graphic sense and design skills exceeded his own. Anton Gag died of tuberculosis when his daughter was 15. He left with these dying words: "Was der Papa nicht tun koennt’, muss die Wanda hab fertig machen." – that is, "What papa couldn’t do, Wanda will have to complete."

Wanda Gag went to enough school to earn a teaching license. She worked for one year in a country school, then, moved to Minneapolis where she attended the Institute of Art. Ambitious, obviously talented, and stylish in the manner of a Twenties flapper, Gag ended up in Greenwich Village in New York. Pictures show her sporting a black helmet hairdo, a ‘bob’ like that of Louise Brooks. Gag collected older man as lovers, generally kept the peace between them, and worked on engravings and etchings. She sold her graphic work through the Weyhe Gallery, a New York institution owned by Carl Zigrosser (one of her boyfriends). Her engravings are highly atmospheric, sculpturally modeled still lives – she cuts linoleum blocks into images of the barn interiors, rustic equipment, furrowed fields, and, in one remarkable image, a stair well at Macy’s with a firehose coiled like a great serpent.

In 1926, Wanda Gag published a highly celebrated autobiographical essay: "These Modern Women – a hotbed of Feminism." At that time, she was affiliated with the artists associated with Edward Steichen, including Georgia O’Keefe. Her 1928 children’s book, Millions of Cats, was a triumph – it remains in print today. With the book, Gag pioneered the use of double-panel illustrations for children’s books. She wrote the somewhat macabre story – it features cannibal cats – and cut the woodblock letters explaining the colorful prints that comprise the book. The book won the Newberry Award and assured Gag’s continuing fame. In 1935, Gag consolidated her reputation for feminism with a children’s book: Gone is Gone: the Story of a Man who wanted to do Housework.

Gag despised the saccharine style used to animate Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. She was generally familiar with German fairy tales and their harsh "magical realism" from her childhood growing up in New Ulm. Carl Zigrosser gave her a book of Grimm’s Maerchen in the original German and Gag was fascinated by it. This book inspired her involvement with Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales, an interest that resulted in her translations with illustrations in four volumes between 1936 and 1947 – the last published posthumously. Gag died of lung cancer in June 1946.

Carl Zigrosser wrote the Foreword to Gag’s last book, the posthumous More Tales from Grimm (1947). Zigrosser was himself an immigrant to the United States from Austria. He operated galleries that sold prints in Greenwich Village and was a fixture of the avant-garde scene in that neighborhood until the Depression. In 1936, he published a compilation of famous graphic works under the title Six Centuries of Prints. This book became a best-seller and went through many editions. On the strength of this volume, Zigrosser was appointed curator of prints, drawings, and rarebooks at the Philadelphia Museum of Fine Arts. He continued in that role until the sixties. His last publication was a catalog-raisone of the graphic works of John Marin.

In the Foreword to More Tales from Grimm, Zigrosser recounts that he "was delighted when the German edition of The Tales which (he) gave her in 1931 bore such beautiful fruit." Zigrosser says that he edited the book with Earle Humphreys – Gag married Humphreys, with whom she had lived since 1931, in 1943. (A free spirit, Gag moved from New York to "All Creation" farm at Milford, New Jersey – she continued love affairs with others notwithstanding her commitment to Humphreys.)

Zigrosser notes that Gag had completed all of the illustrations for the volume, along with the translations, and that they existed in pen-and-ink iterations. He observes that some of the pictures published in the book are not entirely finished. Then, he states:

Mention should be made of the drawing for The Soldier and his Magic Helpers ... because it reveals how Wanda Gag, in spite of her capacity for meticulous detail slipped up in a minor point. In the text, the Blower always functions through his nostril, whereas in her preliminary sketch he is definitely shown blowing through his mouth. Undoubtedly had she lived, the artist would have noticed the discrepancy and corrected it in the final drawing. It will be interesting to discover how many readers are sharp-eyed enough to discover the lapse.

The drawing at issue shows a plump figure wearing a Phrygian hat seated on a floral ornament, a kind of hybrid flower and tree that represents a wooded hill. The figure’s cheeks are puffed out and Gag has sketched a widening stream of air, shown as a curved and straight dashes emitted from the man’s lips, crossing an open space, and, then, spinning the rotor of a distant windmill located on a grassy knoll. The windmill’s motion is similarly depicted by some rotary streaks connecting the blades.

I disagree with Zigrosser and think the picture is complete. In the text, a soldier encounters a "man holding a finger over one nostril while blowing mightily through the other." When asked what he is doing, the man says that he is blowing air to turn the rotors of "seven windmills...two miles from here."  

Let’s assume that Wanda Gag illustrated this passage literally. She would have to show the plump figure with a hand to his nose, pressing shut one nostril. From the other nostril, she would show a stream of air, made visible series of lines and arcs curving toward the remote windmill. As the picture is now printed, the image shows a stream of air turning a windmill. If Gag had drawn the image according to the text, the picture would show a peasant expressing a stream of mucous from his nostril across the air at a windmill. The dashes and arcs that we construe as "wind" or "breath" would read instead as the flight of snot through the air. This would be unacceptable in any book, let alone a children’s volume. Thus, I think Zigrosser’s speculation on this point is not only wrong, but painfully wrong, displaying a sort of naviety that makes me question his qualifications to interpret and assess imagery in general.

In Anton Gag’s paintings of the Battle of New Ulm, one staple feature is a burning windmill. It is interesting to think of the burning windmills painted by Anton Gag in the context of the little toy windmill with rotors spinning because of the gust of air blown at it by the seated figure.



In the effervescent multiverse originating at the Big Bounce, there is presumably one bubble in this champagne of variegated world in which God exists and His adversary, Satan. Perhaps, this is our world. So among the literal-minded inhabiting this planet, the question arises: What is the distance between Heaven and Hell? (It’s a question that Carl Zigrosser might ask.)

In William Langland’s Piers Plowman, the 14th century poet tells us Christ "knighted ten cherubim and seraphim" gave them "myghte in his majeste", taught them the truth of the Holy Trinity, and, as archangels, expected them to be "buxome at his biddying" and "nought elles." (In this application, "buxom" derives from the Old English "buhsam". "Buhsam" stems for the verb "bugen" – to bend or be pliable. It’s not clear to me how buxom morphed into a term for having large breasts.) Lucifer, who was the "loveliest" of these beings of light, "brake buxumnesse" (that is, become disobedient) and fell from the fellowship of angels, in the likeness of a fiend, into a "depe derke helle." More thousands of angels than could be numbered fell likewise into Hell. These angels fell because they believed Lucifer’s lie that he would be like "the most high" - et similis ero altissimo – a point that the poet tweets to us in Latin. According to Langland, all those who hoped for this "none Heven mighte hem holde,/ But fellen out in fendes liknesses (ful) nyne days togideres" – "Heaven could hold not a one of them, but they fell, in the likness of fiends, for a full nine days together." We are told that this fall took place before God "staked out Heaven" so that it became stationary and stable and "stonden in quiete."

Thus, Langland establishes the dimension between the pearly gates of Heaven to the "deep, dark Hell" as being "nine days fall." We can calculate the distance between Heaven and Hell assuming that there atmosphere between the two places and that a creature in a "fiend’s likeness" falls outstretched like an unconscious human. A human being in free fall will reach a terminal velocity of 122 miles per hour in about three seconds. Falling for nine days, accordingly, Lucifer (presuming that he has a generally human shape) travels this distance: 9 x 24 x 122 miles per hour or 26,352 miles. The circumference of the earth is 24,941 miles.

A favorite passage in Milton’s Paradise Lost seems roughly parallel. This is the fall of Mulciber, Milton’s name for Haphaestus or Vulcan, described at Book I, 740 et. seq. Milton is chronicling how the rebellious angels, after their fall, became identified with pagan deities or demons. In Milton’s imagination, supernatural figures in world mythology correspond with fallen angels. Milton notes that the hierarchies of angels and archangels resided in a heavenly palace, "a towered structure high". The "hand" of this tower’s architect is also demonstrable in the "ample spaces" with "smooth and level pavement" under an "arched roof" that is Pandemonium. The architect of both the heavenly towers and the "brazen" and vast Pandemonium is Mulciber, well-known Milton tells us, "in ancient Greece and in Ausonian land." Mulcibar was thrown by "angry Jove/ Sheer over crystal battlements" so that he fell "from morn to noon, from noon to dewy eve/ A summer’s day..." Milton says that the Greeks believed Mulcibar pluunged into "Lemnos, the Aegean Isle...dropped from the zenith like a falling star."

Mulcibar’ fall lasts only half a day – from dawn to sunset. The space between Olympus and the earth is "fabled" to be 12 x 122 miles per hour or 1460 miles – about the distance between New York City and Wichita, Kansas. What accounts for the discrepancy between Langland’s estimate as to cosmic distances and Milton’s account of Mulcibar’s fall? First, Mulcibar’s plunge is from Heaven to Earth; the rebel angels fall from Heaven to Hell, that fiery realm, apparently, being very far beneath Heaven. Second, Milton is committed to a scheme that glorifies Christian mythology in comparison with the mythologies of the ancient pagans – thus, his cosmos is larger, more complex, and his heros bigger and more powerful, whilst his demons are more titanic and terrifying than those known to the ancient world. Everything in Milton is – to use advertising parlance – Bigger, Bolder, Zestier. Hence, it is not surprising that Milton pictures the cosmos known to the ancients, a world that is merely "fabled" as he points out, as conspicuously smaller than the vasty heights and depths of the Christian universe.

And, in fact, Milton observes and confirms Langland’s measurement at line 50 in Book I. There, Milton tells us, "nine times the space that measures day and night / to mortal men, he (Satan) with his horrid crew / Lay vanquished, rolling in the fiery gulf..." "The space" that measure day and night would seem to be one rotation of earth, or one 24 hour day. Milton suggests that Satan and the fallen angels are motionless, immured in fire and despair where "(they) lay vanquished, rolling in the fiery gulf." My impression is that there are no landmarks in the fiery gulf that separates Heaven from Earth and that the "rolling" devils are, in fact, falling through a featureless void – this explains the odd notion of their "rolling" and the curious use of the word "space" for "time". Space and time, of course, are related in the movement of an object and, therefore, I read Milton’s account of this nine day hiatus between the fall of Satan and his rebel angels and Satan’s wakening to consciousness in the flaming great dungeon and furnace of Hell as measuring the depth of the fallen angel’s plummet from Heaven down to Hell. This allows us to draw a comfortable correlation between Milton’s cosmogony and that of William Langland in Piers Plowman.


The windmill burns because it is in Hell.

On July 27, 2017, the great Satan, Donald Trump, in his White House Pandemonium tweeted something about denying transgender people the right to serve in the military. The tweet was taken as yet another indication that President Trump was willing to "brake buxomnesse" with respect to the ordinary conventions of political discourse and deliberation.

Of course, the news commentators reported that this was a distraction that Trump was advancing to divert attention from the ever-deepening, if still inconclusive, scandal involving his campaign’s collusion with Russia.

One of Trump’s surrogates was asked whether tweets, presumably the product of a moment’s whim, should be construed as establishing national policy.

The surrogate, pivoting away from the question, said this: "Well, if you are asking me if Trump’s practice of disintermediating is a good thing or a bad thing. I think it is an unmitigated good thing."

Hence, the surrogate was saying that disintermediated communications – that is, tweets – are an unmitigated good thing..

The surrogate was pretty sure that the interviewer didn’t know the meaning of "disintermediate". Perhaps, he thought that the interlocutor would construe the word as meaning that the best mediation between two positions is via something that has been "disinterred" or "excavated" – hence, I aim to negotiate toward your position by "digging something up" and interposing that cadaverous entity as a mid-point between us.

In fact, "disintermediate" is a wholly legitimate term from the dismal science of economics – it simply means to devise a distribution system from producer to consumer that eliminates the so-called middleman. In this context, the word means to communicate directly with someone without intermediaries. Clearly, the Trump surrogate thought that the word had a sexy sound and that it "dissed" or disrespected the media.

Thus, just another day in Hell.


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