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The Cosmic Landscape by Leonard Susskind

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The universe, why does she purr and growl and spit and coo the way she does? “Like the eye,” Leonard Susskind writes in The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design, “the special properties of the physical universe are so surprisingly fine-tuned that they demand explanation.”

The eye, of course, was supposed to be the trump card of the cadre of crypto-creationists known as the intelligent design underground. The plan, as outlined in the infamous Wedge document, was to stealthily sow doubt and infiltrate key positions in order to get creationism taught in schools, along with morning prayers and the Ten Commandments mowed into the lawns of every courtroom in the U.S. Alas, the trial in Dover, Pennsylvania (a case fondly, if very unofficially, remembered as A Couple Dumb Cluck School Board Members and Their Discovery Institute Allies vs. Common Sense), put the kybosh on intelligent design.

Which might mean that Susskind’s 2006 book is passé and no longer useful. The influential and admired theoretical physicist wrote it, he says in his introduction, because he thinks the universe – quirky, special, and weirdly tuned as she is – can be explained without recourse to “supernatural agents.”

In fact, though, and except in the introduction, Susskind has way too much fun ogling the universe’s sexy features to really spend much time bashing creationists. He’s got “branes” on the brain while luxuriating in “a bubble bath universe,” washing off the mud (or whatever that stuff is) being slung in “the black hole wars.” Creationism be damned, let’s do math!

Or, since there aren’t any actual equations in The Cosmic Landscape, let’s do the diagram rumba and follow the squiggly lines that compose a Feynman diagram – but watch out! The dance floor is folding according to the weird rules of its own private geometry. And: energy is mass with no clothes on so, parents, shield your children from the wonders of the universe.

But that, ultimately, is Susskind’s point: you don’t need to bring in supernatural intelligence to explain the weird goings on in the universe; you don’t need “intelligent design” or, as brainy physicists with a metaphysical bent like to call it, the “anthropic principle.” The anthropic principle is the idea that the universe is designed just so, so that – guess who – humans can thrive in it. Things are neither too hot nor too cold; neither too inflationary nor too contractionary. It is kind of spooky. Better, though, Susskind says, to take a look at what he called “the physicist’s Darwinism.”

Survival of the fittest, that is, only as it applies to the laws of physics. Just as with biology, where you get highly adapted and complex things like eyes and duck-billed platypuses, the universe has strings, and branes and black holes. The laws that work, continue to work. The ones that don’t, stop being laws, either dying out or changing. There is, Susskind claims, a “landscape of possibilities” Out There – and The Cosmic Landscape is his delightful tour of it.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Brian Charles Clark, 2010

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Written by Brian

January 14th, 2010 at 1:38 pm

On gardening: The theft of all your labours


Beware - gardening may be a thief of your labor!Doing a semi-decadal book purge recently, I found an old letter tucked inside a book. The letter was sent to Permeable Press some time in the mid-90s. There’s no return address on the envelope, and the letter itself lacks either a salutation or a sign off. It’s completely anonymous, in other words. The postmark lacks any means of identifying where it came from, too, as it’s just a red ink-stamp circle indicating that “52 cents” was paid to get the letter moving–meaning it didn’t come from the U.S. So perhaps it came from Australia or South Africa? This impression is compounded by the author’s spelling of the word “labours,” in the British manner. In any case, the letter is quite odd. It’s gardening advice, sort of, so I thought I’d share it as the time to till is fast upon us.

The letter is addressed to Permeable Press. Note that I, as Permeable Press, never published anything about gardening, so this letter is doubly odd to me, which is why I saved it all these years.

Here’s the letter in total:

Do not be jealous or in anyway envious of your neighbors flower or vegetable gardens. What they have may be a sign of a problem. A flower garden may be a sign of depression and a sign of a severe drinking problem. A vegetable garden may be a sign of a cry baby, a person who whines about everything. Any attempt by you to have such a garden, may not work out as you planned.

Growing a garden (this is very hard work for some people) may lead to the theft of all your labours. Very little produce comes of it.

Growing fruits and vegetables indoors is not a good idea because they don’t taste right.

But, if you want to try, here are some tips. The seeds you buy may not grow properly at all. Water is much better to start plants in (if you have to).

Seeds come from the plants themselves. Examples: Cut up potatoes are the seed for this vegetable. The dried leaves from the carrots are the seeds for this vegetable.

“Old maids” are the best at growing gardens. They don’t mind digging in the dirt or doing hard physical labour.

Fruit trees are best left in orchards.

Good luck with your project.

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Written by Brian

February 22nd, 2009 at 1:58 pm

Seven Habits of Highly Effective Writers

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Daphne Gray-Grant has a great piece on Ragan, a site for professional communicators (read: PR hacks), about the kinds of things writers do to get the job done. I especially like #6, as procrastination is the hurdle I’ve had to deal with most often as a writing instructor and coach:

Write in small bursts. Creative work doesn’t require oodles of time. That first draft you need to write? It’s best done in dribs and drabs, a little bit at a time. Instead of procrastinating, effective writers persuade themselves to write a little each day, no matter how frazzled and frantic they feel. (Editing, on the other hand, usually needs space, time and quiet.)

About a dozen years ago, when I was writing a novel amidst three more-or-less full time jobs (including a technical writing gig for Broderbund software that bored me to tears), I adopted the motto “a sentence a day, even if it kills me.” The novel–and the software manuals–got done.

She also suggests separating writing from editing (great advice that I have a hard time following, a bad habit I freely admit slows me down), doing research before writing (again, great advice, though I’ve seen this abusued, as doing research sometimes becomes the excuse for not writing), and “dissecting” great writing “like a scientist” to see how it’s done.

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Written by Brian

January 31st, 2009 at 8:04 am

Posted in the secrets, writing

What My Cigarette Tastes Like


I quit smoking five days ago, on Tuesday, after 36 years of smoking numerous cigarettes every day. That first day, I was scanning through the Boing Boing feed and came across this graph, which was originally posted here. Those first couple days were full of weird congruencies, reminding me of how bad tobacco is and how much I’d gain by quitting.

graph of how my cigarette tastes

As Harold commented, “Begs the question: How do you know what your dog’s anus tastes like?” Not sure the answer to that, but I’m not going to smoke a cigarette to find out.

The weird thing about quitting was the response I got from both my M.D. and a cognitive psychologist I visited for advice.

My M.D. was horrified that I had quit, “cold turkey,” as he said, without consulting with him to “make a plan.” Dude, said I, I have a plan (don’t smoke) and I hardly think that I’m going into that good night cold turkey. I had bought a box of 2 mg nicotine gum the day before. Later that same day, the cognitive shrink told me pretty much the same thing. Neither of them could grasp that they should be using the past tense as regards me and smoking. Throughout our conversations, they insisted on saying “when you quit.”

I had already read that one should pick a “special day” to quit. Tuesday, of course, was the day that Chief Justice Roberts fucked up on giving the oath to President Obama (oh, joyous words!), making the day pretty damn special for me and millions of others. Quitting Bush, quitting smoking: makes sense to me. Gaining Obama, gaining a smoke-free life: ditto.

The thing about quitting is that the nicotine replacement therapy is more expensive than smoking (well, in the short term, obviously). The 2 mg gum is about 75 cents per piece. So, in search of a cheaper remedy, I contacted my insurance company. Turns out, Washington citizens are entitled to free or low-cost replacement therapy–but I guess you have to be insured, which I am. So I called Group Health and they connected me with a “quitting coach.” I had a 20-minute conversation with Tommy the Coach and he, at least, was enthusiastic that I had quit. Tommy the Coach read me the prescribed use of the gum: “You must chew at least 10 pieces per day” (about the same as the number of cigarettes I’d been smoking for the past year or so) for 30 minutes per piece. I said, “Sure, will do,” with my fingers crossed. I’ve been chewing more like four pieces per day, as I break them in half to avoid the nausea that results from a dose of nicotine entering my blood stream through my stomach rather than my lungs.

So far, so good. I figured it’d be a lot harder than it has been. The worst thing has been what I’ve been describing to friends as “the phantom limb”: the one that keeps dragging an imaginary cigarette to my lips. Makes sense, though: I’ve just amputated a habit I’ve been indulging in for 36 years. The neural pathways are deeply ingrained with that motion. But the weird, uncomfortable sensation of the phantom limb is already fading, thank Goddess, and my brain, old dog, is apparently still capable of learning new tricks.

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Written by Brian

January 24th, 2009 at 12:08 pm

Posted in drugs, the secrets

Stand Tall for Phenols

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I’ve suggested before that plants are the ultimate selfish genies. Or geniuses. Red queens in green drag. One day soon, I swear, I’m going to get around to explaining what I mean by that and once and for all answer the question, Who cultivates whom?

In the mean time, here’s a tantalizing tidbit that underscores just how dependent we are on plants. Norm Lewis is a scientist at Washington State University’s Institute for Biological Chemistry. Lewis’s work interests me because it’s straight up cool: I’ve learned from talking to scientists to never turn my back on a plant, much less an entire monocropping field of them.

PhenylalanineLewis and his crew of researchers, in the words of a Newswise press release,

has cloned six genes coding for different forms of the enzyme arogenate dehydratase (ADT), which converts a compound called arogenate into phenylalanine.

A description of phenylalanine’s fate underscores its central role in terrestrial plant life and the importance of the enzymatic reaction that produces it.

Phenylalanine is converted into phenolic compounds that are the building blocks of many of the plant world’s most distinctive and important substances, including the pigments in flower petals and chemicals that protect leaves, stems and bark from ultraviolet radiation. Perhaps the best-known end product of phenols is the one that allows trees to stand upright.

But, the release continues,

Phenylalanine is more than a precursor to other important compounds. Since it is an amino acid, it is used as a building block itself in the production of proteins. That happens in animals as well as in plants; humans and other mammals, however, can’t produce phenylalanine. We obtain it by breaking down proteins in the food we eat—either plant material, or the meat of animals that ate plants.

We’re getting close to the big-bang heartbeat of the living world here or, at least, to identifying a strand that weaves all life together.

Lewis said our reliance on plants to make phenylalanine means the reactions that produce it are as crucial to our survival as they are to that of plants.

“If these don’t exist, we don’t exist. It’s as simple as that,” he said.

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Written by Brian

November 6th, 2007 at 10:37 pm

Dr. Sullivan’s Science – Episode Two – All about Sturgeon


Another in our series of educational science videos, this time we visit the Bonneville Fish Hatchery to dive into the mysterious lives of sturgeon. Dr. Sullivan informs us that these ancient creatures, which can live as long as two hundred million years, are in no way related to science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon.

Don’t miss the exciting first episode of Dr. Sullivan’s Science.

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Written by Brian

September 16th, 2007 at 4:44 pm

Dr. Sullivan’s Science, Episode 1


Continuing on our journey along the Oregon coast, we stopped at a beach near Arch Cape, just south of Cannon Beach. More sea stacks, etc., all lovely.

We shot an educational science video which we hope you enjoy.

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Written by Brian

August 13th, 2007 at 11:48 am

Memories from Life after Death (for RAW and T. McK.)

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Essay by Brian Charles Clark

As Robert Anton Wilson (the man, the modality, the moonmeld) indicated in undisclosed locations known only to a select few, and the Dogon of West Africa have known for thousands of years, cheese is of alien origin. The phrase “the moon is made of green cheese” is not just smoke blowing from the door of an opium den. Rather, it is a literal truth, one a world-wide conspiracy has sought to suppress for many moons. Cows are robots from space, implanted with soulful stares that have but one purpose: to disarm and befuddle the planet Earth’s population into thinking that they, and other udder-bearing beasts, are the sole source of milk and milk by-products. Which, in fact, they are. Read the rest of this entry »

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Written by Brian

April 4th, 2007 at 6:47 pm

Go FOIA Yourself

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Ever wondered what the FBI has on you? Here’s a Freedom of Information request made simple. (The FBI has nothing on me. Not sure if that’s good or bad.)

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Written by Brian

March 1st, 2006 at 1:47 pm

A Film of Nematodes

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Here’s something that supports my long-held thesis that scientists make the best science fiction writers not because they know so much about science but because they’re so damn weird:

“…if all the matter in the universe except the nematodes were swept away, our world would still be dimly recognizable, and if, as disembodied spirits, we could then investigate it, we should find its mountains, hills, vales, rivers, lakes, and oceans represented by a film of nematodes. The location of towns would be decipherable, since for every massing of human beings there would be a corresponding massing of certain nematodes. Trees would still stand in ghostly rows representing our streets and highways. The location of the various plants and animals would still be decipherable, and, had we sufficient knowledge, in many cases even their species could be determined by an examination of their erstwhile nematode parasites.”
From Nematodes and Their Relationships, 1915 by Nathan Augustus Cobb, the “father of nematology in the U.S.

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Written by Brian

August 29th, 2005 at 11:10 pm