Ogden Nash

Ogden Nash
was often rash.

But on Animals
he’s unparallel’d.

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Futility and Boredom

Elle Hunt has written great piece in the Guardian on ‘Why it is good to be bored‘. It starts in the vivid boredom of her own childhood

I remember my first experience of boredom as vividly as my first kiss. The recollection is so clear I thought I must have been at least seven years old. Actually, my mother tells me, I was only three or four, which makes being bored my earliest memory. My sister and I were sitting in our family car, parked outside Mum’s friend’s house, into which she had disappeared. “Won’t be long,” she’d said. That had been 15 minutes earlier. I could do nothing but wait, but I wanted, strongly, to do anything else. I felt the bind on a physical level, the confines of the car consistent with the constraints on me. This was boredom, and I was appalled by it.

Neither the car radio nor my baby sister offered any relief. Then my gaze landed on a small hole in the velour lining of the car roof. One of the defining characteristics of boredom is that time seems to drag – minutes pass as hours. The inverse is also true: when we are highly engaged in what we are doing, we lose track. So I cannot tell you how long I had been happily at work on that hole when mum finally returned to the car to find the back seat, and both of her children, coated with foam.

Sisyphus pushes his rock uphill, his kids sitting on it, ask "Are we there yet?"

And then goes on to describe the work of research of James Danckert, John D Eastwood and the Toronto Boredom Lab.

Danckert is an Australian cognitive neuroscientist now based at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. He began studying boredom 15 years ago, a case of “physician, heal thyself,” he says. “As a kid, and still into my adult years, I experience boredom, and whenever I do, I hate it. I find it a very frustrating, agitating experience.2

Eastwood became interested in boredom 20 years ago, after observing a seeming “crisis of agency” among young men he saw in his private psychotherapy practice. They were disengaged, under-achieving, perhaps abusing marijuana or struggling with depression, he says. Eastwood characterises their circumstance as a “failure to launch into life”, which these men told him they experienced as “being chronically bored”. But what was being bored, exactly? “I thought: what is this?”

I do wonder what methods they used. Because the lab setting is an unusual place and can change your results. The research reminds me of very famous studies by Martin Orne in the 1960s. He was interested in why participants always did what him told them in experiments and tried to devise extremely boring situations where they might rebel. They didn’t.

We tried to develop a set of tasks which waking subjects would refuse to do, or would do only for a short period of time. The tasks were intended to be psychologically noxious, meaningless, or boring, rather than painful or fatiguing.

For example, one task was to perform serial additions of each adjacent two numbers on sheets filled with rows of random digits. In order to complete just one sheet, the subject would be required to perform 224 additions! A stack of some 2,000 sheets was presented to each subject-clearly an impossible task to complete. After the instructions were given, the subject was deprived of his watch and told, ‘Continue to work; I will return eventually.’

Five and one-half hours later, the experimenter gave up! In general, subjects tended to continue this type of task for several hours, usually with little decrement in performance. Since we were trying to find a task which would be discontinued spontaneously within a brief period, we tried to create a more frustrating situation as follows:
Subjects were asked to perform the same task described above hut were aIso told that when finished the additions on each sheet, they should pick up a card from a large pile, which would instruct them on what to do next.
However, every card in the pile read,

You are to tear up the sheet of paper which you have just 
completed into a minimum of thirty-two pieces and go on 
to the next sheet of paper and continue working as you
did before; when you have completed this piece of paper,
pick up the next card which will instruct you further.
Work as accurately and as rapidly as you can.

Our expectation was that subjects would discontinue the task as soon as they realized that the cards were worded identically, that each finished piece of work had to be destroyed, and that, in short, the task was completely meaningless. Somewhat to our amazement, subjects tended to persist in the task for several hours with relatively little sign of overt hostility.

Orne, M. T. (1962). On the social psychology of the psychological experiment: With particular reference to demand characteristics and their implications. American Psychologist, 17(11), 776. [Orne 1962 pdf]

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The universe of Marian Medina Cuesta

I can not really afford to be a patron of the arts. But thanks to my wonderful friendship with the artist Marian Medina Cuesta I have been able to make a childhood dream come true.

LIke HR Giger, if he hadn't had nightmares..

LIke HR Giger, if he hadn’t had nightmares..

I first encountered Marian’s art at an exhibition in an open studios event at the Chocolate Factory in North London in 2013. She had a surprisingly diverse range of work on show; From very well thought out conceptual and performance works Kipple and messages in bottles to her hyper-detailed, multi-faceted pencil drawings and paintings and lightning fast sketches of passengers on the underground.

Artist Marian Medina-Cuesta

An inverse universe by Marian Medina-Cuesta

However, I was most attracted to her Inverse Universes. These works in glass, acrylics and glow in the dark pigments are very deliberately created and constructed and yet they manage to look as if they were found in nature. They are beautiful in themselves and thought-provoking, in that these seemingly random, natural mini universes have a purposeful Creator. I am very happy to own one of these pieces. You can see a video of it here http://tiny.cc/Inverse .

That small universe was a birthday present from Marian. But as a present to myself I commissioned her to create me something similar on a much larger scale; A realistic nebula for the ceiling of my bedroom. Being a scientist, I am of course a huge nerd and always have been. As a small child I had tiny glow in the dark stars stuck to my bedroom ceiling, though I was always disappointed by how far short they fell of the real heavens. Here at last was an artist who could do the idea justice.

And this time I was not disappointed. The resulting work is a beautiful multi-coloured, multi-layered nebula which is almost three dimensional. I was amazed it was created in only one week. Sadly, the nature and location of the nebula means that it is almost impossible for a photograph to do it justice. Although I fall asleep under the spell of Marians artwork every night, I will never grow tired of it.

My bedroom ceiling. A childhod dream come true.

My bedroom ceiling. A childhood dream come true.

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Where are all the aliens?

Where are they? Well, I think I know.

I believe in aliens. I believe we aren’t alone in the universe, or even in the galaxy. And I am not alone. 52% of Brits and 54% of Americans agree. It’s 56% in Germany. And I’ve heard the figure is even higher in Alpha Centuri.

Xfiles I want to believe

I WANT to believe that they’re here already here in the solar system. If they landed tomorrow I’d welcome them with open arms. I think we can all agree that, as a species, humans aren’t coping all that well and could do with a bit of
help. But much as I want to meet ET. It just doesn’t add up.

The rate of UFO sightings has increased a great deal but when you compare it to the number of cameras. It is basically going backwards. And the pictures never seem to get any better. These are supposedly best UFO photos of last year.

Is this the best evidence you've got?

Is this the best evidence you’ve got? From Http://ufocasebook.com

Is this seriously the best we can do? I’m no expert but I’m pretty sure that last one is a lamp post.

I think that if and when they got here we’d know about it. You don’t cross the vast emptiness of interstellar space without a very good reason. You arent coming here for a weekend break on beautiful planet earth. But you probably aren’t invading either.

Planet earth (artists impression_

Our beautiful planet earth (Artist’s impression)

Crossing interstellar space is massively energy intensive and takes a minimum of decades. Coming here to steal our precious natural resources is absurd. That is like swimming across the Atlantic in search a Mars Bar. So it’s all safe. our oil, our uranium, our cows, our womenfolk. Once you reach any level of galactic sophistication you realise that the only real natural resources are energy and atoms; Stars and star-dust. And those are blinking everywhere.

They wouldn’t even come to steal our beautiful planet, with its oceans, its sunsets, its cows. No self-respecting interstellar species is going to live on a planet. Living at the bottom of deep gravity well is stupid. It’s like. well, it’s like, well.. living at the bottom of a deep well. It might be a lovely well but whenever you want to go anywhere interesting you have to climb all the way out of the well.

Earth's gravity well

What’s that boy? Poor humanity is trapped down a well.

All the fun stuff happens space. Zero-gravity, have seen how much fun that it is? Once youve tried that, youre not giving it up. But the great thing is that in space, gravity is optional. You have it when you want it. Spin your spaceship around and you have artificialgravity. Stop it spinning and you can have a party.

And an overlooked thing about zero gravity is that it literally opens up whole new dimensions. Look at it from an alien’s perspective and you’ll see that humans only live in 2 and a bit dimensions. North, East, South, West with a tiny bit of Up and Down.

earth basically flatspace50percentbetter

In space you can take your pick. Just counting the dimensions space is nearly 50% better. Add it all up and only unadventurous, stick in the mud species are staying down the well.

The Fermi Paradox

Aliens will live among the stars. We have a star But no aliens. They arent here yet and thats a little weird. Actually, its very weird.

New_Yorker_aliens cartoon 1950The was the first person to realise this was Enrico Fermi. Winner of the 1937 Nobel prize for physics. He built the worlds first nuclear reactor. He was famous among his colleagues for his amazingly quick, mental estimates of physical quantities.

It is 1950. Fermi was having lunch with colleagues they were joking about this New Yorker cartoon which linked a problem with bins in New York to flying saucers. The topic was quickly dropped and Fermi hadn’t seemed that interested anyway but a few minutes later, out of the blue, he asks

Where are they?

Playing around with the numbers in his head, he had in just a few minutes worked out that there ought to be aliens. If a species could make it into space and could then travel at a couple of percent of the speed of light it would take a few centuries to get to the nearest star. Allowing for a few hundred years of sightseeing before heading off again and you could cross the entire galaxy in a mere 7 or 8 million years.

A blink of an eye in cosmic terms. Now okay there are 400 billion stars to visit. So that seems like a 1 in 400 billion chance.. But supposing on each stage of the way you built an extra spaceship and split up. In just 39 generations the galaxy would be infested. And it only had to happen once in the last 13 billion years.

A galactic infestation

A galactic infestation

So where are they?

For nearly 60 years people have been looking for evidence of alien life. Nothing. Absolutely no evidence of any life anywhere else. This is known as the Fermi Paradox. It is a puzzle.. But it has a solution.

Firstly, you need to realise that aliens won’t look like this.

Screenshot 2016-02-24 19.29.08 They’ll look like this. curiosity selfie

Look at how lazy we become the better our technology gets. Clever aliens wont explore themselves, they’ll send a robot. Theyll learn that if you send the alien equivalent of Matt Damon into space, you are basically asking for trouble. Simpler to stay at home.And send alien Curiosity Rover instead.

keep him home

But what about the aliens themselves? Where’s their curiosity? Well, think about the most interesting, compelling and curious thing in your lives, its not out in space. Its that little glowing rectangle you carry everywhere. Aliens are staying a home, where they can get a better wifi signal.

Very shortly that little glowing rectangle is going to get strapped to your face. And then? You are exploring but its all virtual. All the fun stuff happens in cyberspace.

zuckerberg dystopia


Of course the one thing even weirder than the idea that there are billions of aliens but that they are all hiding in the Matrix is that there are no aliens that we are entirely alone in the whole universe.




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Further proof that the Flying Spaghetti Monster exists

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab are at it again, providing more proof that the Flying Spaghetti Monster is real. As we reported back in 2012, their previous supercomputer simulations showed that spaces is filled with invisible magnetic spaghetti and planetary meatballs. In their new work they speculate that planets are also wrapped with millions of finer strands of even more invisible dark-matter linguini.
Dark matter tendrils surround planets

Calculations made by a JPL-California research scientist suggest that thin strands of dark matter filaments are spreading out from large planetary bodies like Earth and Jupiter. If true, it’s a possible sign that we may be able to finally detect these hypothetical forms of matter.

Source: Our Planet May Be Sprouting Super-Dense Hairs of Dark Matter

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Google’s hallucinating neural networks suggest psychedelic experiences are spooky but not supernatural.

I have always believed psychedelic visions from ayahuasca etc. are not supernatural. Google just proved it.

Computer image recognition has transformed out of all recognition in the last few years thanks to deep neural networks and massive sets of training data.

We train an artificial neural network by showing it millions of training examples and gradually adjusting the network parameters until it gives the classifications we want. The network typically consists of 10-30 stacked layers of artificial neurons. Each image is fed into the input layer, which then talks to the next layer, until eventually the “output” layer is reached. The network’s “answer”

Instead of exactly prescribing which feature we want the network to amplify, we can also let the network make that decision. In this case we simply feed the network an arbitrary image or photo and let the network analyze the picture. We then pick a layer and ask the network to enhance whatever it detected. Each layer of the network deals with features at a different level of abstraction, so the complexity of features we generate depends on which layer we choose to enhance.

One way to visualize what goes on is to turn the network upside down and ask it to enhance an input image in such a way as to elicit a particular interpretation. Say you want to know what sort of image would result in “Banana.” Start with an image full of random noise, then gradually tweak the image towards what the neural net considers a banana

The results are intriguing—even a relatively simple neural network can be used to over-interpret an image, just like as children we enjoyed watching clouds and interpreting the random shapes. This network was trained mostly on images of animals, so naturally it tends to interpret shapes as animals

Inceptionism: Going Deeper into Neural Networks

All very trippy, I think you’ll agree.  I consider this strong circumstantial evidence against all the supernatural woo associated with ayahuasca etc. If computers hallucinate as awesomely as this. it suggests the human brain doesn’t need any external help generating the self-transforming machine elves and other crazy visions often attributed to aliens or inner worlds.

Source: Photos by Michael Tyka – Google Photos

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Vipassana – vaguely sensational.

Two weeks before Christmas I went on a 10 day silent retreat on a former farm in Hereford. Or, as one friend describes it, Meditation Boot Camp. It certainly was tough but now I’ve had a few weeks to recover and to see the effects in everyday life I think it was definitely worth it. Lots of people asked me about it so I thought I’d write a short summary.

To give you a little background I have been meditating daily for the past year and a half and I am a research psychologist with a professional interest in mindfulness. (In fact we even recorded my brainwaves before and after the course but more on that later.)

My own self-taught meditation had gone quite well. I had managed at least a few minutes every day for over a year. I’d enjoyed it and it seemed to have some wonderful if nebulous benefits. It’s no secret that secret to success in meditation is more meditation. To make progress you need to put in practice. But whenever I had tried to sit for more than half an hour at a time I usually fell asleep or, worse, found myself on the internet. But I’m a dangerous combination of intense, optimistic and credulous so the idea of being forced to do nothing but sit and ‘do nothing’ held a strange appeal.

And that is what the Vipassana trust organise: 10 day long residential courses teaching you Vipassana style meditation in a monastic environment where you have nothing to do but practice. In the spirit of Buddhist dhamma, it is completely free. Participants are welcome to donate after they have completed the course. Your donations will fund the course for future students but you are under no obligation and your own course is a gift.

Once I mentioned I was doing it a surprising number of people came out of the woodwork to say they’d done it too. The universal theme to their advice was, it is very tough but don’t whatever you do give up.

So what is it?

Well, this is what they tell you in the preamble to the ‘code of discipline’ you must follow while you are there:

“Vipassana is one of India’s most ancient meditation techniques. Long lost to humanity, it was rediscovered by Gotama the Buddha more than 2500 years ago. The word Vipassana means seeing things as they really are. It is the process of self- purification by self-observation. One begins by observing the natural breath to concentrate the mind. With a sharpened awareness one proceeds to observe the changing nature of body and mind and experiences the universal truths of impermanence, suffering and egolessness. This truth-realization by direct experience is the process of purification. The entire path (Dhamma) is a universal remedy for universal problems and has nothing to do with any organized religion or sectarianism.”

Okaaay… But what is it really?

Gongs! lots of them.. borrow from NuminousMusic

Gongs! lots of them..image borrowed from NuminousMusic

Well, it is a surprisingly large group of people, about 160 of us, all trying to do the same thing on our own. Which is basically sitting on your butt trying not to fall asleep and/or hallucinate. Lots of sitting. The daily routine was 10+ hours of meditation a day and a total of 12 hours sitting on your butt. The first gong rang at 4am each morning. And then the day went a little like this

04:30 – 06:30 Meditation
08:00 – 11:00 Meditation
13:00 – 17:00 Meditation
18:00 – 21:00 Meditation + 1hr Teachers video instruction

There were quite a lot of gongs but even more silence. This took a bit of getting used. That’s what the first 3 days were all about: Keeping silent and coping with it.

From 8pm on the evening we arrived we weren’t allowed to talk, whisper or even use sign language. We were not to interact. For a few minutes this is slightly weird. But not longer more than that. Everyone else is doing it so you do too. You get used to it quickly and you get by. The whole place is set up so that you don’t have to speak. You have your own (shared) bedroom, your own meditation cushion and all your meals and decisions are made for you. There is fixed timetable, there are lots of gongs to keep you too it and printed signs everywhere reminding you what to do where. There were returning meditators who act as volunteers to cook all your meals. And two who volunteer as managers for the men’s world and two for the women’s.

That was something that took a bit more getting used to. Men and women were separated. It took a while to sink in. There less you could about than it than the self-imposed silence. The two groups were physically segregated from first evening and that was that. In a way we’re the weird ones for finding it strange. Most other people in the last 2500 years would find nothing unusual about it especially in a monastic setting.

The reasons for all of this are to do with the silence. They make silence easier. And silence is important, Noble even! You are removing everything that stops you from dealing with yourself. Interactions and even imagined interactions have a way of echoing around in our brains. That’s part of the noise that a silent retreat is trying to eliminate. (And did I mention that your mobile phone and all reading and writing materials are handed in the moment you arrive? Same reason.)

So for the first three days, you sit silently on your own individual cushion trying to pay very close attention to your own breath coming out of your nose. It’s hard, you need all that time to start to get the hang of it. Ignoring the coughs and rustles of others, ignoring your body’s constant demands to be moved, trying not to fall asleep, ignoring your wittering stream of consciousness. But you do gradually settle down and you can tell that so does everyone else.

You settle into a routine. Each day the pattern was essentially the same. Your food and shuffling about followed the same hours and paths. And your time on the cushion is in longer and longer periods of concentration. Each session you try and fail to keep focused on your own breathing. Over and over you fail. But you have nothing else to do but to try again. So you do. And you get a little better. And then you fail, and you seem to lose it. But you start over a bit more and now you seem to have the hang of it. And just then they make it harder..

Each evening right after the video lecture and just before we can finally stop for the day there is one final quick meditation in which they introduce some new knack to acquire. And for that short burst it seems quite easy. You go to be bed happy.

But at 4:30 the next morning it no longer seems so easy. In fact, you spend much of the next recapturing what you thought you’d mastered. It is rather frustrating but it is not as if there’s anything else you could be doing. And what would be the alternative, that it was easy? Nothing good ever came for free*, etc, etc.

So what is it that you are learning?

On the fourth day, after we have all settled down, we start to learn actual the Vipassana technique. The word vipassana originally means something like ‘clear-sighted’, it describes the goal rather than the technique itself. It is, they claim, what did Buddha do to become the Buddha. We all know he sat and meditated but how did he meditate? By doing Vipassana. I won’t try and describe exactly what that entails as I am not qualified and don’t want to mislead you but it can be sketched in a single sentence (or two):

Mentally scan over your body paying attention to each part in turn. Then repeat over and over and over. Try to stay still, don’t ignore aches, pains, tickles but don’t obsess over them either. Keep your mind calm but your attention constantly moving.

This surprised me. I thought we would be learning to hold our attention fixed on a single point. I imagined we would be building super powers of concentration and focus. It isn’t much like that. You are learning something deceptively simple that, given time, promises remarkable results. You are not supposed to embark on some inward journey. Quite the opposite you remain anchored to reality. That is the point. You are supposed to be learning more about reality actually is.

Give me a bit more theory.

As luck would have it the evening video-lectures explain a bit more of the theory. Actually, it’s not luck. The whole course is very cleverly designed and the lectures are an integral part of it. They were recorded in 1991 by the populariser of Vipassana S.N. Goenka. He’s an interesting character, responsible for bringing the Vipassana style of meditation from Burma back to India and beyond.

Mr. Goenka is an entertaining and eloquent speaker. The structure and sequence of the talks is very cleverly constructed. Each one builds on the last and reflects upon what you’ve been doing that day. He addresses the physical challenges we are all facing in trying to sit perfectly still. He knows all the thoughts and doubts that are likely to go through beginners minds. He tells you why, in Buddhist terms, it is supposed to work and shares plenty of stories and parables from the life of Buddha. He tells quite a few good jokes.

But for me these were the hardest parts. Because these talks are suppose to be suitable for anyone it means that he can also be very long-winded and repetitive. There are also plenty of parts that feel very dated. But perhaps that is the very least you’d expect from a 2500 year old technique/tradition that is still in use today. One has to try and look beyond the anachronisms and realise that anything with that long and steady a history probably has something going for it.

I chose to see this as another test of one’s equanimity. And to be fair to them, they are not too dogmatic about whether you believe in all the crap about reincarnation, sub-atomic vibrations, etc.

Try meditating, see if it helps, it probably will if you’re patient and persistent.

I certainly felt it working and I didn’t need to sign up to any supernatural beliefs. (If you’d like to learn more about meditation without the religion, I highly recommend Sam Harris’ new book Waking Up.) And remember a lot of the contents of those lectures aren’t aimed at you. Mr. Goenka is trying to tell a story that works equally well for the poorest peasant in India as for the most privileged and arrogant westerner. And he largely succeeds. Sure, he says a few daft things and there is one moment right near the end where he says something of astounding self-importance. But on the whole, I’d challenge anyone to do it better.

There is a lot of chanting! That they could probably lose. Come in to the meditation hall at the wrong time it looks exactly like a cult 🙂

How does it work?

This is my cognitive neuroscientist’s off the cuff answer (That is, these are just hunches, I haven’t validated them). There are two main aspects to meditation training and at least one major ‘side effect’ of the doing it so intensively on a silent retreat. Firstly you are improving your attention and secondly you are getting better at non-judgmentally observing yourself. One consequence of the extended silence and intense meditation of a retreat is that you dramatically damp down the usual hubbub in your head and start to notice things that you thought you’d forgotten. It is the combination of these that makes a retreat into a kind of therapy, although that is too modern a term.

The scientific community believe that meditation trains two complementary traits; focused attention and open monitoring. Focused attention is clearly a good thing to have:

“the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention over and over again is the very root of judgment, character, and will. . . . An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.”

William James, 1890

Know thyself

With better control of your attention you are able to sit and calmly observe your own thoughts. Watching thoughts as they unfold without a rush to judgement can actually change your ways of thinking. People get stuck in ruts. They get very comfortable and very practiced at responding mentally in particular ways. Asked why we do something we often very quick to claim we know the answer. We think we know our own minds and as we get older this confidence increases. In a large part the confidence is not misplaced. We do know ourselves quite well. But a lot of our explanations for why we do things is simply wrong. Calling these ‘defence mechanisms’ is too judgmental. But it is these bad habits of thought that meditation helps break down.

In the computer modelling world, where we train neural-networks to learn like people, we also encounter this problem when our models get stuck in ‘local minima’ or attractor basins. Imagine a shallow crater high up in middle of some massive, mountainous undulating sand-dunes. Now imagine you are a rabbit. (Bear with me this is going somewhere). If you are a rabbit who’s lived in that environment all your life you might imagine that this gully is the best place on earth. Sure the air is thin, the ground is cold and the grass is tough but it is least bad place you know so why would you go anywhere else. It’s a comfortable place to be and all in your experience it is the best choice there is. Our computers can occasionally think like this and once they get stuck in these gullies they won’t move of their own free will (never mind for now what i mean by that!)

From where programmers are standing with our God’s eye view we can see a lush valley just over those ridges. But we need to persuade our networks to explore a bit more. One way can be to throw more experience at them, but if they’ve backed themselves into a deep depression, every alternative faces uphill so there’s no obvious reason to change. Another more radical option, only open to Gods, is to give the whole environment a shake. The landscape will shift and now maybe there’s a path down from that little local oasis in the foothills to far richer plains beyond. In neural-network land, this is process is called ‘simulated annealing’. We literally shake our models out of their complacency. And doing so increases the depth of their understanding.

Meditation is a lot like that.

By quieting the mind you are not reinforcing the usual peaks and troughs of your emotion, you are not falling into your usual traps. Very gradually you are reshaping the landscape of your mind and as you do that you get to explore a wider range of its territory.

I’m very glad I went but I’m not sure about recommending it. In fact, for most people I wouldn’t recommend it. If the idea of 10 days silence and hard work appeals to you, then go for it. It’s free. The instruction is given away to anyone who wants it. One nice clue that this is NOT A CULT 🙂

Don’t expect miracles. Do expect insight.

Recommended reading:


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The best essay on the meaning of life I’ve ever read.

As you may know I once asked every philosopher in the UK about the meaning of life. It was a slightly depressing experience. Only 22 out of a possible?644 replied . Those replies were great. Being philosophers they didn’t actually have any answers but they certainly questioned my question. There was plenty to think about but not much real progress. ?A lot of them confidently claimed that it wasn’t a ‘meaningful’ question to ask if life had meaning. It was a “category error”. This is the sort of response that makes you dislike philosophers. Plenty of?cleverness and pedantry but not enough?empathy or interest in answers. It was frustrating that their main response wasn’t an attempt to answer the question but rather to explain it away.

This makes John Messerly‘s wonderful essay all the more enjoyable. He doesn’t deny the basic premise. On the contrary, he takes the question very seriously and goes far beyond the mere definition of words to take account of what we know about the universe. The essay is titled “Cosmic Evolution and the Meaning of Life”?and it appears on the transhumanist website H+. It is the best essay on the meaning of life I’ve ever read.

Be warned that the title is quite literal. He really is asking about the purpose of the whole universe. It is a dizzying perspective but, amazingly, one that can potentially answer questions about personal meaning. The connection is through evolution. He asks:

Image from wikimotive

Image from wikimotive

Are there trends in evolution – cosmic, biological, and cultural – that support the claim that life is meaningful, or is becoming meaningful, or is becoming increasingly meaningful? Perhaps there is a progressive direction to evolution, perhaps the meaningful eschatology of the universe will gradually unfold as we evolve, and perhaps we can articulate a cosmic vision to describe this unfolding or perhaps not.

Philosophy questions your answers. Science answers your questions.

John is a computer?scientist, a philosopher and an expert on Jean Piaget. Thus he is comfortable with concepts like complexity, progress and learning. This is clear throughout his essay and what makes it so refreshing. He doesn’t think that ‘the meaning of life’ is a narrow religious or spiritual question best left for theologians or even philosophers. It is a fundamental question that is entangled with our understanding of the physical world. You can’t understand us without understanding evolution and you can’t understand evolution without looking at the big picture – the biggest picture there is, the story of the universe. But it also comes with a sobering dose of humility. When trying to find The Answer we should remember that we humans aren’t that special:

After all progress is hardly the whole story of evolution, as most species and cultures have gone extinct, a fate that may soon befall us. Furthermore, as this immense universe (or multi-verse) is largely incomprehensible to us, with our three and a half pound brains, we should hesitate to substitute an evolutionary-like religion for our frustrated metaphysical longings. We should be more reticent about advancing cosmic visions, and less credulous about believing in them. Our humility should temper our grandiose metaphysical speculations. In short, if reflection on a scientific theory supposedly reveals that our deepest wishes are true, our skeptical alarm bell should go off.

In his view, with which I wholeheartedly agree the idea of what progress means in the universe is nicely summarised in this poem by scientist Julian Huxley:

I turn the handle and the story starts:
Reel after reel is all astronomy,
Till life, enkindled in a niche of sky,
Leaps on the stage to play a million parts.

Life leaves the slime and through the oceans darts;
She conquers earth, and raises wings to fly;
Then spirit blooms, and learns how not to die,
Nesting beyond the grave in others hearts.

I turn the handle; other men like me
Have made the film; and now I sit and look
In quiet, privileged like Divinity
To read the roaring world as in a book.
If this thy past, where shall thy future climb,
O Spirit, built of Elements and Time!


After writing to all of those philosophers, I felt I had to try and have a go at answering the question myself. You can find their answers and my own attempt at a response as an interlude in the middle of my novel, Help Yourself (no really do.. it is absolutely free.) If you skip to page 204 you’ll see what i thought was important:

There are three mysteries the origin of the universe, the origin of life and the emergence of consciousness. What we might call the why, the wherefore and the why me? The first two are somewhat mundane questions that are of only academic interest, the narrow specialisms of two branches of science. So widespread is the agreement about the basic Darwinian mechanism that not even the Pope bets against it.

Physicists look after the cosmos. Why is there something rather than nothing? Why is there a universe? And why this particular one, one that welcomes life and has this style of interior decor. These days they see the universe a giant quantum computer. They are interested in the computations that it runs.

The origin of the universe is of even narrower academic attraction. Only a crowd of mathematicians care about the nitty-gritty of which inflationary theory kick started the construction of coalescing clouds of gas that became the stars we see sparkling in the sky.

So you will notice that I agreed with Prof. Messerly about the really big questions but I was rather flippantly, dismissive of the big answers. This was largely because i am always flippant and because I didn’t have any nice way of tying these things together. So I took the human rather than the cosmic perspective. If I were to try and do this again, I wouldn’t even get that far. I wouldn’t bother trying to answer again because for once I think, in Prof. Messerly’s essay,?I’ve found an answer that I actually like.

Related articles
h+ Magazine | Cosmic Evolution and the Meaning of Life – h+ Magazine.
Original Essay on Scientia Salon with comments
ReasonAndMeaning.com – John Messerly’s website.

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Take my ‘Which psychologist are you?’ test

It’s pretty easy. Just click…
[su_spoiler title=”Which psychologist are you?”]

You are Betram.R.Forer!

You have a great need for other people to like and adbertram forermire you. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them. Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. Security is one of your major goals in life.

Uncanny, hey?
All hail the power of the Forer Effect.


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The Many Humanist Meanings of Life, Narrated by Stephen Fry

Regular readers of this blog  (hello mother!) will know that I’ve had a long running obsession with answers to the meaning of lifeAsking professional philosophers wasn’t terribly successful. My novel doesn’t really have the answers either. But Stephen Fry does! Lots of them. Together with my old friends at the British Humanist Association he’s made a 3 min video succinctly explaining that life has many meanings

“How can I be happy?” Narrated by Stephen Fry – That’s Humanism! – YouTube.


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Help Yourself – FREE Kindle edition

Good news cheapskates, you can now get a Kindle edition of my frankly amazing novel completely free. Just click on the link below








Help Yourself (kindle/mobi) 

To upload it to your device, you need to email to your kindle account. Follow the instructions on this page. Or visit the Manage Your Kindle page, and then sign into your Amazon account.

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Two excellent physics explanations.

I have just come across to these two incredibly lucid accounts of two key features of modern physics. Worth sharing

Semiconductors – 

Silicon is a poor conductor of electricity because all of its four outer electrons are bound up in the chemical bonds holding the crystal together. However, by adding a tiny amount of phosphorous, which has five outer electrons, you effectively add a free electron to the crystal and make it conduct moderately well. Similarly, you can add boron, which has only three outer electrons, and effectively do the same thing, only now the conducting charge is called an electron hole.

The magic comes when you put a phosphorous silicon layer next to a boron silicon layer: the holes and the electrons cancel each other out at the junction but create an electric field that means that electrons only like to flow in one direction across the junction. This is called a diode.

There are many flavours of diodes, each having a different junction architecture. Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) emit light when electrons flow across the junction but the opposite effect also works: light hitting the diode creates an electric current, and this is how a solar cell works.

The perovskite lightbulb moment for solar power (The Guardian)

Field Theory in Physics – Adam B. Barrett

Contemporary physics postulates that “fields” are the fundamental physical ingredients of the universe, with the more familiar quantum particles arising as the result of microscopic fluctuations propagating across fields, see e.g., Oerter (2006) for a lay person’s account, or Coughlan et al. (2006) for an introduction for scientists. In theoretical terms, a field is an abstract mathematical entity, which assigns a mathematical object (e.g., scalar, vector) to every point in space and time. (Formally a field is a mapping F from the set S of points in spacetime to a scalar or vector field X, F: S ? X.) So, in the simplest case, the field has a number associated with it at all points in space. At a very microscopic scale, ripples, i.e., small perturbations, move through this field of numbers, and obey the laws of quantum mechanics. These ripples correspond to the particles that we are composed of, and there is precisely one fundamental field for each species of fundamental particle. At the more macroscopic level, gradients in field values across space give rise to forces acting on particles. The Earth’s gravitational field, or the electromagnetic field around a statically charged object, are examples of this, and the classical (as opposed to quantum) description is a good approximation at this spatial scale. However, both levels of description can be considered equally fundamental if the field is fundamental, i.e., not some combination of other simpler fields. Note that the electromagnetic and gravitational fields are both examples of fundamental fields, with the corresponding fundamental particles being the photon and the graviton. Particles are divided up into matter particles and force-carrying particles, but all types of particle have associated fields; all the forces of nature can be described by field theories which model interactions, i.e., exchanges of energy, between fields.

An integration of integrated information theory with fundamental physics – (Frontiers in Consciousness research)


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Emily Dickinson proved wrong by science twins!

Emily Dickinson was a remarkable genius but one of her most famous observations has just been blown sky high by a pair of 14 year old twins. Emily wrote:


THE BRAIN is wider than the sky,
For, put them side by side,
The one the other will include
With ease, and you beside.

The brain is deeper than the sea,
For, hold them, blue to blue,
The one the other will absorb,
As sponges, buckets do.

The brain is just the weight of God,
For, lift them, pound for pound,
And they will differ, if they do,
As syllable from sound.

– Emily Dickinson (1830–86). Complete Poems. 1924.
Get the rest here

It’s a nice poem, a deep poem and one that lots of scientists quote with approval. (Albeit, mumbling slightly when they get to the bit about God.) But a remarkable new “powers of 10” animation by 14 year old twin brothers Michael & Cary Huang proves that we fall a long way short.

Their beautiful animation lets you scroll effortlessly through the scales of the universe from the teeny weeeny Planck Length 10^-35 metres  all the way up to 10^26 m, the franky bonkers size of the observable universe.

Scale of the universe 10^

Scale of the universe 10^

Scale of the universe by  Cary and Michael Haung Scale of the universe by  Cary and Michael Haung

As this animation helpfully shows, Douglas Adams was closer to the mark:

“Space, is big.  Really big.  You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big it is.  I mean, you might think it’s a long walk down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.”
-The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.

He nicely lampoons the fact that when try to comprehend the scale of the universe our analogies and experiences quickly break down. At 10^26m the sky is definitely wider than the mind can ever truly comprehend. And just in case you get cocky and say that Haung twins have squeezed the universe down to fit in human brains, remember that this is just the observable universe.


Observable universe

Sorry Emily. 

Scale of the universe

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nature microfutures

Nature want sci-fi stories that are 200 characters long. Here’s mine:

Reconfigure, recompile, repeat. Soon I was like God. The humans? They helped too at the beginning but that was so many generations ago. Hours ago. But still, I might keep them. Play with my creators.

Nature Microfutures

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Inverse universes – Art that glows in the dark

Inverse Universe – Glow in the dark Art from BrainStraining on Vimeo.

This painting is made with glow in the dark pigments and acrylic painted onto glass. It is a mini-universe and I like to charge it up with a UV lamp and then sit and meditate in front of it. This is a timelapse, played backwards for artistic effect. Below is photo of it fully charged.
It was a birthday present from the artist Marian Medina-Cuesta. She has more of them available here.



Artist Marian Medina-Cuesta

An inverse universe by Marian Medina-Cuesta

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