Mind Over Matter: Conversations with the Cosmos

Mind Over Matter: Conversations with the Cosmos

by K. C. Cole
Mind Over Matter: Conversations with the Cosmos

Mind Over Matter: Conversations with the Cosmos

by K. C. Cole

Paperback(First Edition)

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The universe comes down to earth in K. C. Cole's Mind Over Matter, a fresh and witty exploration of physics, cosmology, mathematics, astronomy, and more. Like no other science writer, Cole demystifies scientific concepts and humanizes the people who study them. Beginning with a discussion of how "the mind creates reality as well as muddles it," she then peeks into the stories behind science's great minds and into their playful side, and concludes by illuminating the relationship between science and society. Cole's remarkable work brings science to the reader's doorstep, revealing the universe to be elegant, intriguing, and relevant to politics, art, and every dimension of human life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780156029568
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication date: 04/17/2004
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 499,446
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

A popular science columnist for the Los Angeles Times and teacher at UCLA, K.C. Cole is a recipient of the 1995 American Institute of Physics Award for Best Science Writing. She is also the author of the internationally bestselling The Universe and the Teacup, First You Build a Cloud, and The Hole in the Universe. Cole lives in Santa Monica, California.

Read an Excerpt

The I of the Beholder

The Emperor and Enron

You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but the easiest person to fool is yourself. Especially when the products of your own wishful thinking are also being peddled by higher authorities.

So it struck me as particularly apt that I took a class of UCLA students to the oddball Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City during a week when the Enron mirage was dissolving; when dubious claims for the production of fusion energy got major play in the journal Science; when Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson was trying to turn people's attention to wholesale extinction of life; when military planners were blithely bringing back nuclear weapons as instruments of foreign policy.

The struggle of science has always been somehow to get outside ourselves, so we can see the world objectively. The struggle has always been doomed. "We each live our mental life in a prison-house from which there is no escape," wrote the British physicist James Jeans. "It is our body; and its only communication with the outer world is through our sense organs-eyes, ears, etc. These form windows through which we can look out on to the outer world and acquire knowledge of it."

The windows are cloudy, of course, veiled by expectations, distorted by frames of reference, disturbed by our very attempts to look. Especially when we stand so close that we can't see through the fog of our own hot breath, our own smudgy fingerprints.

This is the sort of thinking bound to trail you like a wake out of the Museum of Jurassic Technology. If you haven't been there, I'm not going to recommend it. It will make you laugh, but it will also upset you. It will leave you wondering if you just didn't get it, or if you got it too well, or if someone was pulling your leg, or if you were pulling your own. You will wonder what thoughts are yours, and which are planted, and why we are so exceedingly well wired to believe official pronouncements-especially when they are obscure, pompous, and make us feel a little stupid.

Probably just as artist/creator David Wilson intended.*

For example, this funky piece of performance art might bring to mind-as it did for one of my students-Enron. How could so many people, so many accountants and investors and regulators and business journalists, believe so completely in so much thin air? At least in part because the "authorities" convinced us it was okay to do so and, worse, convinced each other.

The mind creates reality as well as muddles it. That is how placebos work.

As a friend likes to say, far more insidious than an emperor without clothes are clothes without an emperor. Authorities should always be stripped.

Scientists have thin patience for mere veneers, which is why many physicists complained loudly when the prestigious journal Science prominently touted a breakthrough in tabletop fusion technology-despite the widespread skepticism of the scientific community, despite failure to duplicate the results. Not that there was no there there. Just maybe there was. But tentative truths do not deserve such royal window dressing. The authority of science (or Science) is too powerful to toss around lightly.

Of course, as Jeans pointed out, our view is always partly cloudy. The closer we are, the harder it is to see. The greatest danger is believing we can ever completely separate ourselves from our surroundings. Consider, as E. O. Wilson does, the blatant absurdity of talking about the environment as if it were something apart from ourselves, a special-interest lobby, remote and foreign, like "outer space" or Afghanistan.

Increasingly, we are the environment.

As E. O. Wilson points out in The Future of Life, when humanity passed the six-billion mark, "we had already exceeded by as much as a hundred times the biomass of any large animal species that ever existed on land." We consume and exhale stuff in such huge quantities that we have already changed the air, the water, the continents. By the end of this century, we may well have extinguished half the species of plants and animals that ever lived.

We take comfort in the thought that extinction happens only to exotic creatures-big scary dinosaurs and tiny insignificant fish. Not in our backyards. The truth is, we are in serious danger of extinguishing almost everything, not excluding ourselves. And we can't stop if we can't see.

Self-referential systems are a bear. This sentence is false. Or not.

The authorities aren't helping. Instead, some authorities are telling us that we should be ready to use nuclear weapons-which do not merely destroy cities but vaporize them-to make the world safe from terror.

Somebody please get the Windex.


I didn't understand what a truly bizarre place L.A. was until a few months after I arrived and was invited to a Halloween party. Despite considerable effort, I couldn't find an appropriate "costume": No matter how outrageous a getup I picked, I was informed it was "normal" attire for someone.

A scant year later, a friend visiting from the East Coast kept surprising me by exclaiming every time we passed a thong bikini or a crown of spiked hair.

For her, these oddities demanded attention; for me, they were already wallpaper.

So it goes. What at first glance sets off sirens in your cerebellum, after a while fails to stir up so much as a neuronal breeze.

I was horrified to see my daughter go to school with bra straps showing, only to realize that all her friends were wearing more or less the same attire.

These days, I don't even notice errant lingerie-on myself or anyone else.

We get used to almost anything that comes upon us slowly. The classic example is the frog plopped into a pot of hot water; he promptly leaps out. Place the same frog into cool water and turn the heat up slowly, however, and he'll sit contentedly until he's cooked.*

It can be useful not to notice things, of course. You'd be endlessly distracted if you couldn't shut out constant signals such as the feel of clothes on your skin, the glasses on your nose, the nose on your face. (And when would college students ever sleep if they couldn't tune out professors during lectures?)

Then again, some people become so accustomed to their own bad smells or foul manners that their "normal" becomes unbearable for anyone else.

Resetting "normal" means, in effect, resetting the zero point for sensation. (Physicists even use a version of this-appropriately enough called renormalization-to set unwanted effects to zero.) To register, a signal needs to rise above the background-like a car radio in a convertible. Like the stars over city lights.

It's a now classic L.A. story: After the Northridge earthquake, when L.A. went suddenly dark, hundreds of worried people called Griffith Observatory wondering about those strange lights overhead. So steadily that hardly anyone noticed, we'd been spilling city light into the sky, washing out the stars; and while a nearly starless sky seemed "normal," the sight of thousands of stars was shocking.

Leave it to the Czech Republic (a nation run by a playwright) to become the first nation to pass a law prohibiting light pollution.

Here's a scarier example: Not so long ago, the deadly microorganism known to biologists as Clostridium botulinum was known primarily as the source of a lethal poison found lurking in bulging soup cans-one of the most poisonous substances known. Today, it's a beauty treatment, injected at some expense into foreheads to make wrinkles go (temporarily) away. This has gotten to be so "normal" that Botox parties are today what Tupperware parties were to my mother's generation.

This is not a good thing, to put it mildly. According to the editor of Science magazine, Donald Kennedy, in a recent issue of his journal, C. botulinum ranks right after anthrax on the list of biological weapons terrorists might employ. If the demand for Botox continues to soar, and longer-lasting strains hit the market, as soon seems plausible, "will we be happy to have that many of these hot bugs around?" Kennedy asks.

The key to spinning poison into beauty potion lies partly in the words: "Botox" sounds better than "botulism." It's always the way with normalization: A "daisy cutter" seems so Martha Stewart. "Taking out" is a term from musical chairs, or for taking out the garbage-certainly not somebody's son or grandmother. No splattered blood or melted flesh.

In reality, a daisy cutter is, as everyone now knows, a fifteen-thousand-pound "antipersonnel" weapon. It delivers scarcely one-thousandth the power of the Hiroshima nuclear bomb-which itself is pathetically puny by today's (even mininuke) standards.

What does it mean to scale up by a thousand? Imagine, as a physicist friend did, that you suddenly find yourself serving dinner for four thousand people instead of four. Making do with the same kitchen, same pots, same glassware. This is a fair comparison, he said, because after all, the Earth itself-the people, the homes, the civilizations-does not change even as firepower increases.

The progression from conventional weapons to nuclear ones is not like going from bra straps to tongue piercing. Closer to summing up the situation is Einstein's remark: "I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones." Good people will differ on choices of action, but you can't see where you're going if you mistake your destination for wallpaper. Be careful what you normalize. It might just take you out.

Copyright © 2003 by K. C. Cole

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means,
electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address:
Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc.,
6277 Sea Harbor Drive,
Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

Table of Contents


introduction and acknowledgments

Part i: the i of the beholder
The Emperor and Enron 3
Normalization 6
Blindsighted 9
Uncertainty 12
Murmurs 15
Eclipse 18
Humility 21
Inside Out 24
Weird Science 27
Love and Bosons 30
Seeing 34
Moving Mountains 37
Uncommon Sense 41
Seeing Stars 44
Calibration 47
Word Problems 50
Naming Names 53
Context 56
Purpose 59
Soul Food 62
Lies 66

Part ii: stuff
Surprises 71
Roots 74
Stuff 77
Surfaces 80
Wind 83
Clouds 86
Patterns 89
Recycling 92
Simplicity 96
Complexity 100
Dazzle 103
Energy 106
The Real World 109
Magnetism 112
Sand Castles 116
Resistance 119
Happenstance 122
Ghosts 125
Symmetry 128
Imperfection 132
Numbers 135
Symbols 138
Geometry 141
Coincidence 145
Change 148
Constants 151
Holes 154
Time 157

Part iii: doing it
Play 163
Failure 166
Answers 169
Questions 172
Nuisance Value 175
Boundaries 178
Toy Models 181
Mind and Matter 184
Pomp and Circumstance 189
Happy Birthday, Walter 192
An Outrageous Legacy 195
Beethoven and Quantum Mechanics 198
Alan and Lucretius 201
The Sun Painter 204
Invention and Discovery 208
Red 211
Objectivity 214
Wherever You Go, There You Are 220
Metaphor 223
Literal Truth 227
Far-Out 230
Connected 233
Dubious Discoveries 236
Déjà Vu 239
Credit 242
Claims 245
Fail Safe 248

Part iv: "political" science
The Physics of Peace 253
Default Lines 257
(In)security 260
Feedback 263
Neutrality 266
Dreamers 269
Natural Law 273
Popular Science 276
The Science of Art 279
Small Potatos (sic) 282
The Geometry of Fairness 285
Faster 288
Unnatural 291
Apocalypse Soon 294
Transparency 297
Oops 300
index 303

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