Saturday, June 27, 2009


There was a poignant obstinacy in Albert Einstein's effort to come up with an unified field theory in his later years. Einstein's rejection of the quantum mechanical solution was based on his strong intuition. Whether his intuition was wrong is still an open question.

It is interesting how gravity has withstood all efforts of unification so far. Gravity is after all a force pertaining to the space-time structure. So there is an inevitable element of self-reference.

It is interesting to consider how the theory of relativity, derived from Mach's principle, fares with the notorious problem of the self-referential.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Anne and Katherine

So I have been reading "Anne of Windy Willows" in the toilet.

Classics have many hidden truths that you discover when you re-read it. This morning I realized that Anne and Katherine are actually like mirror images. Both were orphans. Anne found a home full of love at Green Gables, whereas Katherine (spelt with a K) found that all these people who took care of her did not really want her or love her.

Anne invites Katherine over to Green Gables, despite her doubts, where the two souls finally come closer.

Somehow, it seemed impossible to think of Katherine crying. But she was. And her tears suddenly humanized her. Anne no longer felt afraid of her.
"Katherine . . . dear Katherine . . . what is the matter? Can I help?"
"Oh . . . you can't understand!" gasped Katherine. "Things have always been made easy for you. You . . . you seem to live in a little enchanted circle of beauty and romance. 'I wonder what delightful discovery I'll make today' . . . that seems to be your attitude to life, Anne. As for me, I've forgotten how to live . . . no, I never knew how. I'm . . . I'm like a creature caught in a trap. I can never get out . . . and it seems to me that somebody is always poking sticks at me through the bars. And you . . . you have more happiness than you know what to do with . . . friends everywhere, a lover! Not that I want a lover . . . I hate men . . . but if I died tonight, not one living soul would miss me. How would you like to be absolutely friendless in the world?"
Katherine's voice broke in another sob.
"Katherine, you say you like frankness. I'm going to be frank. If you are as friendless as you say, it is your own fault. I've wanted to be friends with you. But you've been all prickles and stings."
"Oh, I know . . . I know. How I hated you when you came first! Flaunting your circlet of pearls . . ."
"Katherine, I didn't 'flaunt' it!"
"Oh, I suppose not. That's just my natural hatefulness. But it seemed to flaunt itself . . . not that I envied you your beau . . . I've never wanted to be married . . . I saw enough of that with father and mother . . . but I hated your being over me when you were younger than I . . . I was glad when the Pringles made trouble for you. You seemed to have everything I hadn't . . . charm . . . friendship . . . youth. Youth! I never had anything but starved youth. You know nothing about it. You don't know . . . you haven't the least idea what it is like not to be wanted by any one . . . any one!"
"Oh, haven't I?" cried Anne.
In a few poignant sentences she sketched her childhood before coming to Green Gables.
"I wish I'd known that," said Katherine. "It would have made a difference. To me you seemed one of the favorites of fortune. I've been eating my heart out with envy of you.

(From L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Windy Willows).


Anne could have been Katherine, and Katherine could have been Anne, if fortune and misfortune have mixed with each other.

It is the feeling of the contingent that makes the episode between Anne and Katherine one of the most memorable in the whole novel.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Ten seconds

Many interesting problems can be stated in 10 seconds, like "what's the relationship between the brain and mind?" or "do you really love me?"

In Richard Feynman's wonderful book "Surely you're joking Mr. Feynman!", there is an interesting entry about how Feynman tries to answer any problem that can be stated in ten seconds with the accuracy of plus minus 10 percent, in just sixty seconds.


One day I was feeling my oats. It was lunch time in the technical area, and I don't know how I got the idea, but I announced, "I can work out in sixty seconds the answer to any problem that anybody can state in ten seconds, to 10 percent!"

People started giving me problems they thought were difficult, such as integrating a function like 1/(1 + x^4), which hardly changed over the range they gave me. The hardest one somebody gave me was the binomial coefficient of x^10 in (1 + x)^20; I got that just in time.

They were all giving me problems and I was feeling great, when Paul Olum walked by in the hall. Paul had worked with me for a while at Princeton before coming out to Los Alamos, and he was always cleverer than I was. For instance, one day I was absent-mindedly playing with one of those measuring tapes that snap back into your hand when you push a button. The tape would always slap over and hit my hand, and it hurt a little bit. "Geez!" I exclaimed. "What a dope I am. I keep playing with this thing, and it hurts me every time."

He said, "You don't hold it right," and took the damn thing, pulled out the tape, pushed the button, and it came right back. No hurt.
"Wow! How do you do that?"
I exclaimed.
"Figure it out!"

For the next two weeks I'm walking all around Princeton, snapping this tape back until my hand is absolutely raw. Finally I can't take it any longer. "Paul! I give up! How the hell do you hold it so it doesn't hurt?"
"Who says it doesn't hurt? It hurts me too!"

I felt so stupid. He had gotten me to go around and hurt my hand for two weeks!

So Paul is walking past the lunch place and these guys are all excited. "Hey, Paul!" they call out. "Feynman's terrific! We give him a problem that can be stated in ten seconds, and in a minute he gets the answer to 10 percent. Why don't you give him one?"

Without hardly stopping, he says, "The tangent of 10 to the 100th."
I was sunk: you have to divide by pi to 100 decimal places! It was hopeless.

Excerpt from "Surely your're joking, Mr. Feynman!"

The idea is not to require the exact answer. You need to work out only to 10 percent. Feynman's brilliance shines, among the mirthful laughter of the geniuses.

It is fun to extend the game to things other than those that are numerical. You can always come up with a pretty good qualitative appraisal of issues that can be stated within ten seconds, in just sixty seconds.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

How to create a stone

When I was seven, I thought I discovered how to create a stone.

It was during the summer holidays. I was playing with mud near house, mixing with water and kneading the mud.
When the night fell, I left the mud dough on a gutter cover along the road, and went home to have supper.

The next morning, when I went to see what happened to the mud dough, I discovered a pretty pebble instead. The shape was elongated, not entirely round, and between the edges you could observe beautiful strata of colors.

I was fascinated, and believed (as a seven year old could believe) that the mud dough has somehow turned into a stone overnight.

In September, when the school started, we had to hand in each a short report about our holiday investigations. It was the thing to do for school kids in those days. I wrote a report about "how to create a stone". I theorized that you had to knead the mud dough as tightly as possible. Then you left it outdoors. The cool night air had a certain effect on the mud dough, the details of which were still unknown. By the morning, the mud dough would have been turned into a stone, its coloring depending on the details of condition.

As I look back, the strange twilight zone feeling of really believing in the metamorphosis returns. The magic of childhood.

It was not long before I started to suspect that there was something wrong with the whole idea. I started to understand that in order to make a stone you needed a very high pressure. Like when you are pressed under the massive rocks of mountains.
Despite the creeping doubts, I kept the stone as my personal gem in a drawer. When my father rebuild the house, the stone went missing. The school report was lost, too.

I would dearly love to see the stone and the school report now, if it was at all possible.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Brain and heart.

In the favorite novel of my youth "Anne of Windy Willows" (aka "Anne of Windy Poplars", but I somehow prefer the Willows version for the vivid visual image the title invokes), Anne Shirley gives a piece of her philosophy of mind.

"My brain agrees with every word you say but my heart simply won't," said Anne. "I feel, in spite of everything, that Katherine Brooke is only a shy, unhappy girl under her disagreeable rind. I can never make any headway with her in Summerside, but if I can get her to Green Gables I believe it will thaw her out."

(From L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Windy Willows).

In the context of referring to the emotional and sentimental dispositions with which one goes about in one's life, "heart" equals "brain". It is at least so from the modern brain scientific point of view. However, the wisdom of folk psychology often distinguishes the two, as the above Anne Shirley quote tells us.
The phenomenology of the conscious mind, as it is based entirely on the activities of neurons, is in essence bound to the brain. It is interesting to see how the word "heart" is used as a means of extending one's sensitivities beyond this limitation. Anne is trying to make the life brighter for her deprived colleague Katherine Brooke, and is thus trying to go beyond the borders of individualities. The colloquial expression "heart" as opposed to "brain" thus might reflect our often unconscious wish to go beyond the dichotomy between the Dionysian and the Apollonian sensu Nietzsche.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Up where the air is clear

Whenever I encounter an interesting person I try to strike up a conversation.

The other day I was running in the park forest. I chanced upon a man in the mid 50s, with a professional insect net. I used to study butterflies as a kid, and can tell a pro from an amateur.

I stopped jogging, said hello, and asked the gentleman what he was up to. "Insects", he said. "What kinds of insects?" I asked. "All kinds", he answered smiling.

I introduced my self as a "professional" entomologist. Then the gentleman became eager. "You know I have been coming to this forest for the last 10 years. Once every week. During this time, I saw Uranami-Akashijimi only once."
"Really?" I cried. "Can you really find an Uranami-Akashijimi here?"

Uranami-Akashijimi (Japonica saepestriata)
is a small gem of a butterfly, diminishing in numbers in recent years.

The gentleman told me an interesting fact. From then on, whenever I go running in the park forest, I sometimes look up to the treetops, where Japonica Saepestriata could be flying.

In the last scene of my favorite musical "Mary Poppins", the song lyric famously goes "up where the air is clear". The air has become clearer around the forest park ever since I met the gentleman with the professional net.

The tree tops in the forest park.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Spiritual embodiment

There are certain areas of spiritual tradition that leaves you bewildered in a special and indescribable impression when you are there.

The Ise Shrine is one of them.

I have visited the Shrine countless of times. The meticulous care taken in its construction in harmony with nature is apparent as you cross the bridge over the Isuzu river. The tradition of rebuilding the shrine every 20 years (Sengu) has been running for about 1300 years. The next Sengu is due in 2013.

Whenever I have been to a particular location of spiritual significance like Ise, I always wonder why I can't have the same set of feelings back in my daily environment. Why can't I be in the mindset of pondering remote things in the busy streets of Tokyo, in the laboratory, on the train.

In principle one thinks one could, but in actuality one can't.

The reason is most probably in the intimate interaction of the body with the environment. You rediscover the significance of spiritual embodiment.

The Old Shrine Site (Kodenchi) in Ise, waiting for the next rebuilding of the Shrine.