10 January 2013


Thirty-fourth in a series of notes and comments on The Book of Barely Imagined Beings

Chapter 25: Xenophyophore

page 342: Titan. See for example this report from NASA/JPL. Another candidate is Enceladus. Mars remains an enigma.

page 342: single-celled organisms. Charles Taylor says that it is not entirely appropriate to label Xenophyphores in this way. "Rather, [they] have a coenocytic or hyphal organisation, with numerous nuclei scattered throughout long branching cytoplasmic tubes."

page 344: Dali painting. The artist Rona Lee is among those who want to transform our feelings for the bottom of the sea. Neptune Canada has a Flickr stream of deep sea beasties.

page 346: Evidence for bilaterians dates back some 585 million years.

page 347: Rock is not the opposite of life but its essential partner. See, for example, a blog such as Written in the Rocks.

page 349: all stories originat[e] from a marvelous stone. In The Aleph by Jorge Luis Borges, it is reported that "the Faithful who gather at the mosque of Amr, in Cairo, are acquainted with the fact that the entire universe lies inside one of the stone pillars that ring its central court." For an attempt at an explanation based in evolutionary theory see Brian Boyd's On the Origin of Stories.

page 350: perhaps consciousness is the least mysterious thing...and it is matter itself that is truly astonishing. “It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists,” wrote Ludwig Wittgenstein. (Here is a note on consciousness and here's something on dreaming and reality.) 'It from bit', wrote John Archibald Wheeler. But what is 'bit'? James Gleick quotes Wheeler as follows:
“Deplore? No celebrate the absence of a clean clear definition of the term 'bit' as an elementary unit in the establishment of meaning...If and when we learn how to combine bits of fantastically large numbers to obtain what we call existence, we will know better what we mean by both bit and by existence.” This is the challenge that remains, and not just for scientists: the establishment of meaning.
Recent experiments suggest there is a way to go:
[Perhaps] 'particle' and 'wave' are concepts we latch on to because they seem to correspond to guises of matter in our familiar, classical world. But attempting to describe true quantum reality with these or any other black-or-white concepts is an enterprise doomed to failure.
It's a notion that takes us straight back into Plato's cave, says Radu Ionicioiu. In the... allegory, prisoners shackled in a cave see only shadows of objects cast onto a cave wall, never the object itself. A cylinder, for example, might be seen as a rectangle or a circle, or anything in between. Something similar is happening with the basic building blocks of reality. "Sometimes the photon looks like a wave, sometimes like a particle, or like anything in between," says Ionicioiu. In reality, though, it is none of these things. What it is, though, we do not have the words or the concepts to express.

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