EDGE 12 — April 7, 1997


John Horgan, Stuart Hameroff, John Baez, Stewart Brand on "A Possible Solution for the Problem of Time in Quantum Cosmology" by Stuart Kauffman & Lee Smolin

Smolin Responds

Marc D. Hauser, Jaron Lanier, Marney Morris, Clifford Pickover, Douglas Rushkoff, Pamela McCorduck on "A Big Theory Of Culture" by Brian Eno

(8,818 words)

John Brockman, Editor and Publisher | Kip Parent, Webmaster


John Horgan, Stuart Hameroff, John Baez, Stewart Brand on "A Possible Solution for the Problem of Time in Quantum Cosmology" by Stuart Kauffman & Lee Smolin

From: John Horgan
Submitted: 4/2/97

I was hoping that someone would apply the term "ironic science" to the piece by Lee Smolin and Stuart Kauffman, "A Possible Solution for the Problem of Time in Quantum Cosmology," which was posted in this space on March 20. I am delighted that the person to apply the ironic label was none other than Phil Anderson, who like Kauffman is a leader of the Santa Fe Institute. I coined the phrase ironic science in my book "The End of Science" to refer to theories that can never possibly be verified through empirical means. Such theories are ironic in the sense that they cannot, and should not, be taken literally; they are thus more akin to literary criticism, theology and philosophy than to real science. It is a truism by now that some of the most popular theories emerging from the social sciences in the past 100 years or so — Marxism, psychoanalysis, structuralism — have been ironic. What is less appreciated is that even physicists like Smolin and biochemists like Kauffman, who are supposed to be so hard-nosed, indulge in this kind of stuff. If I didn't know Smolin and Kauffman, I would have guessed that their piece was a pseudo-scientific parody like the one Alan Sokal got the hapless editors at Social Text to publish last year. But not only are Smolin and kauffman not kidding; they are passionate about their work. I grant that their speculations are inspired by some very deep, real mysteries. Science has done an extremely good job at describing the universe, but it has done a very bad job at telling us why the universe is the way it is rather than some other way. Why do we have these laws of physics and not some other laws, this configuration of space and time and not some other configuration, this type of life and not some other type? Most of us want to believe there was something inevitable about the cosmos and our place in it — religion is a manifestation of that belief — and Smolin and Kauffman are attempting to give this belief a scientific basis. They are in good company. Many popular theories and ideas in physics and cosmology — such as superstring theory, loop-space theory, the anthropic principle, inflation, multi-universe theories — are also aimed at answering questions about our inevitability, or lack thereof. And these theories are all equally ironic in that they can never be verified by any conceivable experiment. Smolin is quite right that some of these theories make predictions and are thus "testable" in a narrow, technical sense. Superstring theory predicts supersymmetric particles,for example, and inflation predicts a specific cosmic mass-density. But other much less extravagant theories make the same predictions without postulating extra dimensions and infinitesimal string-like particles and parallel universes. These phenomena are as permanently hypothetical as, well, angels dancing on the head of a pin (to use the analogy Phil Anderson favors). What separates real science from ironic science is not just testability but verifiability; real science establishes certain facts beyond a reasonable doubt. I know this definition violates Karl Popper's view that we can never verify anything; we can only falsify theories. But Popper was obviously wrong. The existence of electrons and atoms and elements and viruses and genes and natural selection and galaxies and gravity and the expansion of the universe has been established as irrefutably and permanently as the fact that the earth is round and not flat. Like the people working on superstring theory, inflation and other ironic stuff, Smolin and Kauffman are obviously extremely smart, ambitious and creative scientists. The fact that such talented folks are engaged in such a futile exercise is to me one of the surest indicators that science has entered its twilight. By the way, Kauffman, Smolin, Anderson and I hashed out a lot of this stuff during a online debate between Kauffman and me on HotWired last June. The address for that brouhaha is http://www.hotwired.com/braintennis/96/25/index0a.html.

John Horgan

P.S. Fascinating interview with Brian Eno. If he is interested in unified theories of culture, he should check out the Darwinian take of Geoffrey Miller of the University of Nottingham. Miller says that culture is and always has been "primarily sexual display by young males." But of course Eno, being a rock star, surely knew that all along.

JOHN HORGAN, science writer; author of The End of Science : Facing the Limits of Knowledge In The Twilight of the Scientific Age, has also written freelance articles for The New York Times, The New Republic, Slate, The London Times, Discover, The Sciences and other publications.

From: Marc D. Hauser
Submitted: 4/2/97

Brain Eno makes a comment about "autistic children" and what they are and are not capable of doing. The first point I would like to make is that it is very dangerous making such global attributions. Autism, like schizophrenia and other mental illnesses, are umbrella terms. Consequently, they cover up quite a lot of variation. Thus, although many autistics do live in a socially isolated world, where they fail to take on the perspective of other individuals, fail to appreciate that a person's direction of eye gaze sheds light on their knowledge, and fail to appreciate that others may possess beliefs and desires that differ from their own, there are other autistics who are highly functional (e.g., Temple Grande, the vet studied by Oliver Sacks) and at the other extreme, others who are severely retarded and fail to engage in any aspect of the human world. The second point I would like to make is that there are new studies on normal human infants, autistics, and nonhuman primates suggesting that some knowledge about "other minds" may be implicitly in place, though not explicitly. Thus, for example, prior to the age when normal human infants correctly attribute mental states to others (i.e., around 4 years), they appear to make accurate predictions about others beliefs on the basis of their patterns of eye gaze. But, when they are forced to use their language to report on others beliefs, they fail. Thus, there is an intuition that making things explicit is a developmentally more difficult cognitive process. And if this is right (and we have comparable data on non-linguistic monkeys), then there is the possibility that some autistic children have implicit knowledge about the social world, but lack explicit knowledge. And since many autistic children (but not Williams syndrome children) have language problems, this makes the intuition all the more powerful.


MARC D. HAUSER is an Evolutionary psychologist; Associate Professor at Harvard University where he is a fellow of the Mind, Brain, and Behavior Program; author of The Evolution of Communication; and What The Serpent Said: How Animals Think And What They Think About (forthcoming).

From: Stewart Brand
Submitted: 4/6/97

John, the fascinating thing (to me) I came across in Lee Smolin's letter introducing the piece with Kauffman on time in quantum cosmology was the apparent assumption that...

evolution means causality means time.

Did I get that right? Causality requires time? Does time require causality?

Just curious.


STEWART BRAND is founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, cofounder of The Well, cofounder of Global Business Network, and author of The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT (1987) and How Buildings Learn (1994).

Smolin Responds

From: Lee Smolin
Submitted: 4/3/97

To John Horgan's comment:

It impresses me that some of these comments — Horgan's included — fail to address any of the issues that are the actual subject of the paper I wrote with Stu Kauffman. In fact, our paper, which John and Phil feel so free to characterize, came out of a particular research program in quantum gravity (which as I will stress again below, has already let to experimental predictions.) The paper addresses a particular constellation of puzzles, raises a particular technical objection to certain proposals, and makes a new proposal. This proposal is related to a particular series of developments in quantum gravity, which the reader can find described in the papers it references, by Crane, Reisenberger, Rovelli, Markopoulou, Baez, myself and others. The proposals it criticizes are also referenced, in the papers of Barbour and others. I would have hoped that someone who felt fee to characterize the paper at least took a few minutes to understand what questions the paper is addressed to, what results it is based on, and what it says about them.

Nowhere in that paper do we say anything about the questions raised by John Horgan such as why the laws of physics are what they are, why the universe is in the state we find it, why we exist, why there is life and so forth. Instead, the paper addresses a rather different set of issues which stem from the necessity of incorporating a dynamical theory of spacetime geometry such as general relativity or string theory in quantum theory. This is no mystery, we state clearly what issues we address, and then we address them. Even if Stu or I have written a few things about the issues John mentioned it should not be assumed that anything we write — or even most of the work we do as scientists — is addressed to these issues.

I think personally that the actual issues we discuss are interesting, and might very well be of interest to non-scientists. That is why I thought it would be interesting to post the paper publically, especially as much of the literature in this subject is less accessible to non-experts.

Having said this, let me come to the issues raised by Horgan. While they have nothing to do with our paper, I don't mind addressing them, they are issues that I've thought and written about, although not here. Horgan's concerns are not stupid, science is at a very interesting point, and it is not obvious that good science can be done now about some of the key issues that confront us, concerning quantum gravity, the selection of the parameters of particle physics, the initial conditions in cosmology, as well as questions from biology such as the origin of life. But what I am contending is that in spite of the superficial reasons why one might worry that progress cannot be made on these issues, progress is in fact being made. I rest this contention not on the paper I wrote with Stu, but on the whole body of work that many of us have been contributing to in quantum gravity, string theory, cosmology etc. I would hope it is not too much to ask that anyone who wants to discuss this issue familiarize themselves to some extent with this work and the claims that it makes.

At the risk of repeating myself, let me stress some of the claims:

1) string theory predicts many more things than the existence of supersymmetric particles. The particular features of high energy scattering predicted by the theory are quite different than those predicted by any ordinary field theory. At the same time exactly this behavior seems to be necessary to reconcile quantum theory with relativity and gravitation at the level of perturbation theory.

2) Several very important and exciting things have happened visa via black holes recently, that lead to predictions that are in principle easily verifiable, subject only to the discovery of certain kinds of black holes.

3) Non-perturbative quantum field theory methods applied to quantum gravity yields quite specific and robust predictions concerning the spectra of physical areas and volumes. When it is possible to make Planck scale measurements of geometry these will be tested.

4) There are hypotheses about quantum gravity and cosmology that are easily refutable-and in some cases refuted, by astrophysical observations. There are several chapters and an appendix of my book that discuss this in detail.

Let me stress that John Horgan himself characterizes ironic science as "theories that CAN NEVER POSSIBLY be verified through empirical means." As string theory and quantum gravity make specific predictions that will be easily verifiable when the appropriate technology is developed, (and as a few predictions are even testable now) these developments are absolutely non-ironic, by his definition. Finally, let me emphasize that all of the examples I mentioned are verifiable predictions of some version of quantum gravity, in the sense that these are phenomena that could not be accounted for by any conventional quantum field theory that did not include quantum gravitational effects.

As a result of all this progress, I've come to a very different perspective from John about the future of fundamental physics. Some of this is reflected in my book, and I've tried to present there a series of arguments that lead to a very optimistic perspective for the future of fundamental physics. But whether one agrees with those conclusions or not, I do want to insist that we must discuss these issues in the spirit of the scientific tradition, which means we make arguments based on careful consideration of various kinds of evidence. We should also be willing to change our minds based on evidence and arguments, as the subject is science, and there are often new developments that belie our expectations. I know I myself have modified significantly my own views about things like inflationary cosmology and string theory, as these subjects developed. I expect that there will be things I will change my mind about in the future. I would hope that John Horgan and anyone else who has something to say about the future of science will come to the discussion with a spirit of care, openness and respect that the issue deserves.

As a last comment: the future of science does not depend at all on what any of us say in this context. It depends only on the actual results of work now being done by large numbers of smart and enthusiastic people. I doubt very much that astronomy, cosmology, string theory and quantum gravity would be attracting the efforts of a large number of incredibly impressive young people, as in fact they are, were these fields not progressing rapidly.

LEE SMOLIN is a theoretical physicist; Professor of Physics at the Center for Gravitational Physics and Geometry at Pennsylvania State University; author ofThe Life of The Cosmos.

From: Stuart Hameroff
Date: 4/5/97

Reply to Smolin and Eno

Lee is "Horganizing" our position—saying its too "off in the distant future" to be considered now. How ironic since Horgan is Horganizing him. Of course I disagree with his comments.

From: Stuart Hameroff
Date: 4/5/97


Lee is "Horganizing" our position—saying its too "off in the distant future" to be considered now. How ironic since Horgan is Horganizing him. Of course I disagree with his comments.

Lee said that his "attitude to the problem of consciousness is to postpone it for future scientists."

How ironic! First Philip Anderson discounts Lee and Stu Kauffman's delving into the Planck scale as unapproachable "angel dancing", and then Lee puts consciousness and the Penrose Hameroff model way out of reach. I feel second-order Horganized!

But seriously, Lee's defense of the potential experimental approachability of Planck scale physics was excellent. I might add that the "Casimir force" of Planck scale quantum vacuum fluctuations was recently measured quite precisely by Lamoreaux at Los Alamos.

In 1948 the Dutch scientist Hendrick Casimir predicted that the all-pervading Planck scale quantum vacuum energy (virtual photons) could be measured using parallel surfaces separated by a tiny gap. Some virtual photons would be excluded from the gap region, Casimir reasoned, and the surplus photons outside the gap would exert pressure forcing the surfaces together. Lamoreaux's experimental surfaces were separated by a distance *d* ranging from 0.6 to 6 microns, and the measured force was extremely weak.

At the Tucson II consciousness conference, physicist George Hall of North Carolina State University presented calculations of the Casimir force on model microtubule cylinders. Hall considered the biological microtubule hollow inner core of 15 nanometers diameter as the Casimir gap *d*. As the force is predicted to be proportional to *d^-4*, Hall's models predict significant pressure on the order of atmospheres exerted by the quantum vacuum on longer microtubules. Hall adds that Casimir forces may also exert pressure in ubiquitous smaller biological spaces including intra-protein pockets. So biological systems may interact routinely with Planck scale quantum phenomena. Testable predictions abound (e.g. a paper currently in press lists 19 testable predictions of the Orch OR model). At least this approach to consciousness (right or wrong) need not necessarily wait for future scientists.

Lee also said: "I think the problems we are just now able to make progress with, such as the origin of life or quantum gravity are hard enough."

But perhaps consciousness, life and quantum gravity are related? I think life involves quantum coherence, and like consciousness is a self-organizing process in fundamental spacetime geometry.

Lee: "But the deep philosophical problems of "qualia" and so forth remain as far as I can tell, beyond what we can discuss scientifically."

Not necessarily. If Roger and I are correct, experience is a property embedded at the Planck scale. The spin networks that Lee and Carlo Rovelli describe and the experimental approaches Lee listed could tell us how qualia, or proto-conscious experience are encoded. Their spectra of geometric Planck scale volumes—which Roger describes as having a non-local characte r—could represent the essential grain of conscious experience.

This is a modern physics extension of a line of panexperiential philosophy which suggests that proto-conscious experience is "fundamental". Leibniz saw the universe as an infinite number of fundamental geometric units ("monads") —each having a primitive psychological being (spin network geometric configurations may be "quantum monads"). Whitehead described dynamic monads with greater spontaneity and creativity, interpreting them as mind-like entities of limited duration ("occasions of experience"—each bearing a quality akin to "feeling"). More recently Wheeler described a "pre-geometry" of fundamental reality comprised of information, and David Chalmers contends that fundamental information includes "experiential aspects" leading to consciousness.

And while we're at it, Planck scale features may also encode Platonic values. In SHADOWS OF THE MIND Roger described a Platonic world of mathematical truths, laws and relationships, as well as aesthetics and ethics—our senses of beauty and morality. Perhaps the Platonic world is engrained at the most basic level of reality? Plato at the Planck scale!

Which brings us to the delightful interview with Brian Eno. Brian said:

"What is cultural value and how does that come about? Nearly all of the history of art history is about trying to identify the source of value in cultural objects. Color theories, and dimension theories, golden means, all those sort of ideas, assume that some objects are intrinsically more beautiful and meaningful than others. New cultural thinking isn't like that. It says that We confer value on things. WE create the value in things. It's the act of conferring that makes things valuable."

But who or what are WE? This brings us back to consciousness. WE confer value through our conscious experience. The cultural relativism which Brian describes and the "fundamentalist [view that] some things have intrinsic value and resonance and meaning" may both derive from the Planck scale.

STUART HAMEROFF, MD is Professor, Departments of Anesthesiology and Psychology, University of Arizona, and a collaborator with Roger Penrose in proposing a specific model (orchestrated objective reduction). In 1996 he coorganized an international, multidisciplinary conference "Toward a Scientific Basis for Consciousness" held at the University of Arizona. He is coeditor of Toward a Science of Consciousness - The First Tucson Discussions and Debates.

From: John Baez
Submitted: 4/5/97

To digress slightly from the general drift of the thread thus far, I would like to talk, not about consciousness, ironic science, or the media's image of the Santa Fe Institute, but about the paper by Stuart Kauffman and Lee Smolin. The goal of their paper is to avoid the "disappearance of time" that seems to occur in background-independent theories of physics. This is a rather arcane subject, and it's also extremely confusing — it's been the subject of heated debate for decades. So it's not surprising that the conversation has turned towards other topics. Nonetheless I think they have raised some interesting points that are worth discussing.

However, rather than launching into my views, I think I will mainly give a short sloppy summary of their paper. Hopefully this will help the non-experts see what they are on about. As for the experts, I hope they will object to all the horrible mistakes I'll make, and thus wind up clarifying various subtleties.

I won't try to define a "background-independent theory" here. It's easier to start with the main example of such a theory, namely general relativity. Normally we imagine running an experiment and timing it with a clock on the wall that ticks along merrily regardless of what's going on in the experiment. In general relativity it's known that this is not strictly true. This has to do with how gravity affects spacetime. Very roughly speaking, if you move an object, you change the gravitational field in the room and inevitably affect the rate of ticking of the clock. So if you run an experiment and ask "what did the voltage meter read when the clock said it was 5:30 pm?" you have to recognize that the experimental setup has affected not only the oscilloscope but also the clock. To put it rather floridly, you can't treat the spacetime measured by clocks and rulers as some sort of fixed grid upon which events play out while remainingly loftily unaffected by these events; instead, it interacts with them.

For most purposes these effects are small enough that we can either ignore them or treat them as small corrections. The fun starts when we try to figure out how to do physics while taking them seriously. In one approach, one decides to treat everything relationally. In particular, one treats clocks as just another part of the physical world with no privileged status: instead of asking what the voltage meter reads when the clock says it's 5:30, one could equally well ask "what did the clock say when the voltage meter read 217 V?".

Taking this viewpoint to the extreme, one can argue that the laws of physics don't describe how things change "as time passes": instead, they just express correlations between various observed quantities, like meter readings. This is what's meant by the "disappearance of time" in background-independent theories.

Julian Barbour is a strong proponent of this sort of purely relational view — though I'm surely oversimplifying his thoughts. Kauffman and Smolin seem to want a way out of this view. I'm not sure how clearly it comes through in their paper, but in conversations Smolin has made it clear that he wants to keep some notion of time in order to preserve the concept of NOVELTY. In the purely relational view, there is no fundamental notion of the passage of time; there is simply a fixed set of ways the world can be, and laws describing correlations, like: "if X holds, then Y holds with probability P". As Barbour noted, Smolin finds this idea "scary". Personally I don't find it scary, and I am also rather suspicious about pursuing a course of research to avoid some conclusion one finds scary — though I have no quarrel with striving to reach a conclusion one finds attractive.

Anyway, Kauffman and Smolin suggest the following way out: perhaps it doesn't really matter if there is a fixed set of ways the world can be, because we cannot tell what this set is! Here they are taking advantage of the work of Gödel, Turing and others. These folks showed that there are lots of mathematical problems for which no algorithm can provide the answer. Kauffman and Smolin give some arguments for why determining membership in the set of "ways the world can be" might be a problem of this kind. They also try to see what physics might be like in this situation.

I'll wrap up with a few thoughts of my own. Since I'm not scared by the thing they are trying to avoid, I am not competent to judge whether their way out, if true, would be reassuring. Personally, I have other directions I want to go when exploring the issue of background-independent theories. However, the problem of "uncomputable configuration spaces" is interesting in its own right.

Their paper is not the first to suggest relations between time and computability. Even apart from background-independent theories, there is the interesting question of why, if the past determines the future, the future is still in some sense "new". One natural answer is that in many circumstances, the quickest way to compute the future knowing the present is just to wait for the future to come. (A good place to read about this is in the work of Charles H. Bennett on "logical depth".)

Another interesting question concerns the "arrow of time" and computability: sometimes it's easier to compute the future from the past than vice versa. This is related to public-key cryptography. In this form of cryptography, everyone can easily encode texts for you to read, but they are not supposed to be able to easily perform the inverse operation of decoding. Whether this is really true — whether there really exist reversible computations that are easier to do than to undo — is the content of the famous unsolved mathematics problem "is P - NP?"

I think that the questions Kauffman and Smolin raise would be best discussed in the context of these other ideas.

JOHN BAEZ is a mathematical physicist working on quantum gravity using the techniques of "higher-dimensional algebra". A professor of mathematics at the University of California, Riverside, he enjoys answering physics questions on the usenet newsgroup sci.physics.research, and also writes a regular column entitled "This Week's Finds in Mathematical Physics" ( http: //math.ucr.edu/home/baez ).

Jaron Lanier, Marney Morris, Clifford Pickover, Douglas Rushkoff, Pamela McCorduck on "A Big Theory Of Culture" by Brian Eno

From: Jaron Lanier
Submitted: 4/6/97

Anyone who knows Brian Eno knows he is a complete delight. I grew up with the public Brian of an earlier time from afar; the slight, mercurial, alien albino. I had to smash some tired prejudices in my head in order to adjust to knowing the mature Brian in person. He's SMART. And original. And just to add to the frustration of one's categories, he can still turn out great popular records when asked to. It's as if KISS turned out to be resident scholars at the Institute for Advanced Study when the makeup came off.

For a further twist, as much as I enjoy and respect Brian, I also find I disagree with him in a fundamental way about art and life. Our difference might be so fundamental, in fact, as to be without consequence. Brian has achieved a career in rational art. He is able to explain what he does, why he does it, how he does it. Has anyone else ever done this before? Buckminster Fuller, perhaps? Brian might be the first of his kind.

Brian has defined culture as, "Everything we don't have to do", but then proposes that we have to do it after all in the name of meme diversity. A tidy scheme, but it points out where he and I part ways. I would say the decision to live, and it IS a decision for human beings, is irrational. It is the thing we don't have to do. Once we choose to live, culture is a thing we can't help but do and have.

For me, the fact that we haven't all committed suicide supports an unfashionable kind of dualism. I believe there is something transcendent at the core of living, of being able to experience a moment, of making a decision, of creating a new bit of art. This doesn't mean I support mystification of the artistic process. Rather, I find that the more we attempt to expose it, the more starkly the mystery presents itself.

Brian is attempting to turn art into a cousin of engineering, but I think even the conduct of good science involves an Orphic phase, just like art. Before the rigor of the empirical process can be applied, someone must be curious about something, and THAT is irrational. Scientists simply fall in love with Quasars, butterflies, or strange attractors.

My sense is that the best art often comes out of collaborations between artists who emphasize the rational and orderly with those who emphasize intuition and Orphic spontaneity. George Martin once said he thought the Beatles' music was so good because it was an intersection of druggy minds with his emphatically non-druggy mind. Brian has also done some incredible work paired with artists who create in a murkier way.

As Brian tries to tidy up the murky corners of art and life, I find that he is only exposing a miraculous spring of motivation.


JARON LANIER, a computer scientist and musician, is a pioneer of virtual reality, and founder and former CEO of VPL.

From: Marney Morris
Submitted: 4/6/97

Jaron Lanier wrote: "Brian has achieved a career in rational art. He is able to explain what he does, why he does it, how he does it. Has anyone else ever done this before? Buckminster Fuller, perhaps? Brian might be the first of his kind."

Yoicks! Can this be true. Jaron? Suggesting that Brian Eno might be the first artist to explain what he does, how he does it and why he does it? That there is not a quantifiable (and rational) effort underlying artistic activity.

I'd like to suggest that there is very LITTLE distinction between artistic and scientific discovery. Although the vocabulary and tools are unique,the inquiry is the same. Discourse within artistic communities is as rigorous as any scientific discussion. Qualitatively, a group of mathematicians can recognize one mathematical solution as more "elegant" than another. Is this an art question? Quantitatively, artists refer to scientific principles (light,gravity) as fundamental to the representation of truth in their work. Is this a scientific discussion?

It is a fairly new phenomenon to imagine that artists create in an intellectual vacuum. For truth that belies the myth I'd suggest READINGS IN AMERICAN ART SINCE 1900 a wonderful survey by Barbara Rose. Fascinating discussions from Rothko to Rauschenberg.-


PS. Am I alone in being tired of this simplistic right brain/left brain theory? Would someone please explain why we have all been segregated?

MARNEY MORRIS, founded Animatrix (http://www.animatrix.com) in 1984. A low profile but very successful interactive design company, Animatrix, based in Palo Alto, created the first guided tour for the Macintosh. Clients include AT&T, Kodak, Chase Manhattan Bank, The Limited, Clinique, Microsoft. Morris has a BS in Animal Physiology from University of California at Davis; a BFA in art From University of California at Santa Cruz. She designed the first t-shirt to ever sell 1 million units.

From: Clifford Pickover
Submitted: 4/6/97


John, you commented,

"In THE THIRD CULTURE I refer to the schism between the literary crowd and the scientists. No such problem exists between artists and scientists."

I cannot entirely agree because I have done numerous surveys in which I ask traditional artists if art made using computer graphics or driven by algorithms can be great art, and many say no. The debate can become quite heated, which suggests to me a schism exists — although I admit that as we approach the 21st centuries there is an ever-increasing blurring between science and art in many arenas. Since it is often difficult to define what great art is, I defer to one controversial measure — the greatness of art is related to how much a work can be sold for. Alas, we find that computer graphics — or art derived from mathematical formulas or fractals or stunningly-colored electron micrographs — cannot command the awesome prices of great oil paintings.

Interestingly, when I've conducted surveys on "Is Computer Art Really Art?" a majority of those that answered by sending me electronic computer mail said "yes". A majority of those who wrote their answers to me using paper letters mailed through the conventional mail system, said "no".

In my own work, I find that the line between science and art often becomes blurred. Imagery is the heart of much of the work in my books. To help understand what is around us, we need eyes to see it. Computers with graphics can be used to produce visual representations with a myriad of perspectives, many of which are beautiful to the eye. In many cases, the computer graphics, and scientific visualizations, function like a stain applied to a wood grain to bring out and highlight hidden structures. In my personal opinion, anything that moves me emotionally is art, and I do believe the computer is a tool for producing art. I do believe that beautifully rendered fractals can be art.

We live in an age where there is increasing interplay between scientific and artistic disciplines. In the early 21st Century, I believe that almost all advances in science and art will rely partly on the computer and advanced technology. Moreover, humans will not be able to rely on any one single field of knowledge to make significant advances.

Since their rapid growth following the Second World War, computers have changed the way we perform scientific research, conduct business, create art, and spend our leisure time. The computer has also changed our perception of visual art. From my own experience I have found that computer graphics is a powerful vehicle for artistic expression. The line between science and art has always been a fuzzy one; the two are fraternal philosophies formalized by ancient Greeks like Eratosthenes and Ictinus. Today, computer graphics helps reunite these philosophies by providing scientific ways to represent natural, mathematical, and artistic objects. Computer graphics representations of the behavior of certain mathematical processes has revealed a surprising variety of beautiful, and sometimes unpredictable, patterns and surfaces. Many attractive patterns are graphical representation of intricate curves called fractals.

If Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) were alive today, would he give up his canvas, oil paints, and brush for a computer terminal? What about Lenoardo da Vinci (1452-1519)? Even if they could not obtain funding from the National Science Foundation or the National Endowment for the Arts, they could — with just a personal computer — create, manipulate, and store fairly sophisticated art works. Colors could be mixed and chosen from a palate of millions of different hues. Screen resolution could emulate the grit of the canvas. Their colleagues from around the world could receive their images over their phone lines for their comment and collaboration. Probably Leonardo would spend a large amount of his time inventing entirely new computer input devices to substitute for today's standard mouse — such as hand exoskeletons sold by several manufactures. These devices would allow them to precisely emulate his own masterful brush stokes, the viscosity and drip of wet paint, or a chisel chipping away at an imaginary chunk of shiny marble. Within the next decade, personal computers will feature hands-on manipulation of computer-generated images along with tactile sensations and force feedback. Artists such as Leonardo will work within an artificial reality, where computer sensors measure the position of the head, and track eye and hand movements. Voice recognition programs will allow Leonardo to make voice requests, and special goggles will allow him to peer into colorful new worlds limited only by computers, and the imagination.

What is art? The answer is difficult. Marcel Duchamp, the French Surrealist, once labeled as "art" a defaced poster of the Mona Lisa, a big battered bottle rack, and a mass produced urinal. I think most people would consider a beautifully rendered, carefully-colored fractal pattern more of an artwork than a urinal. On the other hand, computer art does have its limitations. Patrick Hanrahan of Princeton University once noted that 90 to 95 percent of the pictures you see as photographs can't even be simulated on a computer screen.

Dr. P. W. Atkins from Lincoln College in Oxford has eloquently expressed an opinion on the topic of fractal art:

"Fractal images are incomplete art, of course, since they are abstract and not culturally rooted."

But he also notes that:

"I wonder whether fractal images are not touching the very structure of our brains. Is there a clue in the infinitely regressing character of such images that illuminates our perception of art? Could it be that a fractal image is of such extraordinary richness, that it is bound to resonate with our neuronal circuits and stimulate the pleasure I infer we all feel."

I conclude by adding my voice to the chorus of others which are suggesting there is only a fine line between science and art. Sven G. Carlson in his letter to "Science News" says it well:

"Art and science will eventually be seen to be as closely connected as arms to the body. Both are vital elements of order and its discovery. The word 'art' derives from the Indo-European base 'ar', meaning to join or fit together. In this sense, science, in the attempt to learn how and why things fit, becomes art. And when art is seen as the ability to do, make, apply or portray in a way that withstands the test of time, its connection with science becomes more clear."-

Cliff Pickover

CLIFFORD A. PICKOVER, research staff member at the IBM Watson Research Center, received his Ph.D. from Yale University and is the author of numerous highly-acclaimed books melding astronomy, mathematics, art, computers, creativity, and other seemingly disparate areas of human endeavor. Pickover holds several patents, and is associate editor for various scientific journals. He is also the lead columnist for the brain-boggler column in Discover magazine. The "Los Angeles Times" proclaimed, "Pickover has published nearly a book a year in which he stretches the limits of computers, art and thought." OMNI recently described him as "Van Leeuwenhoek's twentieth century equivalent," and WIRED magazine said, "Bucky Fuller thought big, Arthur C. Clarke thinks big, but Cliff Pickover outdoes them both." His web site has received over 40,000 visits.

From: Jaron Lanier
Submitted: 4/6/97

To Marney, who in my imagination is leaping by on a sleek stallion:

I'm not suggesting that artists and scientists are that different — in fact I am suggesting that scientists are more like artists — the stuff I said about falling in love with a piece of the universe...

Brian is an exceptionally open book. I haven't run accross anyone with quite his temperment before, in art history or in person.

All the best,


From: John Baez
To: Stuart Hameroff
Submitted: 4/6/97

You write:

"I might add that the 'Casimir force' of Planck scale quantum vacuum fluctuations was recently measured quite precisely by Lamoreaux at Los Alamos."

and conclude

"So biological systems may interact routinely with Planck scale quantum phenomena."

This is wrong. The Casimir effect we measure has no direct relation to Planck-scale physics, and there is no evidence that biological systems interact with Planck scale phenomena.

Perhaps it would help to recall what the Planck scale actually is. Max Planck cooked up a unit of length from 3 constants: the speed of light, the gravitational constant, and what we now call Planck's constant. These constants are crucial to relativity, gravity, and quantum mechanics, respectively. Thus it is natural to guess that Planck's unit of length is the distance scale at which quantum gravity effects become important. The Planck length is about 10^{-35} meters. For comparison, the radius of a proton is about 10^{-15} meters, and that of an atom is about 10^{-10} meters. No experiments have been done that yield direct information about Planck-scale physics.

The Casimir effect that has been measured in the lab has nothing to do with gravity, as far as anyone can tell. It is an electromagnetic effect, and one can calculate how it works using only the behavior of quantum electrodynamics at distance scales larger than the radius of an atom. Measuring it therefore tells us nothing about Planck-scale physics, only physics at length scales 10^{25} times larger. By the way, it was measured in 1958 by Sparnay.

From: Douglas Rushkoff
Submitted: 4/7/97


I love thinking of high art and low as an experiment in mutual world-creation — test runs of one another's dreamstates, future scenarios, or even interpretations of the past.

As someone who has been frequently teased for attempting to equate the validity of haircuts and high art in discussions of cultural theory, I empathize with your frustration and share in the quest for a universal language of art at least as comprehensive as the language of science. That's what my work has been about — whether it's using chaos math to understand fantasy role-playing, or fractals to understand a rave dance. But boy, the mathematicians and scientists sure hate hearing their language being bandied about on something other than applied math or science, no matter how well you might understand it.

Maybe the only language of art is a set of appropriated imagery and themes. It's always once removed from the original utilitarian function of the word or idea. Art is a meta-language.

So the quest for a unique language of art is ultimately futile, because art itself might already be the universal language of art.

In a sense, the language of art is the opposite of Darwin's language of survival and competition. Art provides commonality, communication, and world sharing. It's a ritualized form of compromise — you wrap your brain around my short story and I wrap my brain around your sonata. The recipient or auditor is in an act of surrender, or ritualized surrender to the artist. The ritual simply means that there is a prior agreement that nothing "real" will happen. Like break dancing or rap face-offs it's a conflict or competition avoidance. (Likewise, the artist using chaos or fractals in his work is less making an assertion or proving a theorem than asking us to "suppose" something.)

As you point out, wearing fashions is a form of role-playing; not utility, as in uniforms, but acting or symbolic play. So a civilian wearing army clothes down on Canal Street means something quite different than when a soldier is forced to fight in one. It's ironic, not functional. It's a "meta" wearing of army clothes. Army clothes as language or a symbolic system.

A verbal discussion of what it means to be wearing army clothes as a civilian on Canal St. would be a meta meta conversation. If, as Mondrian said, all art can eventually be reduced to the artist simply pointing at something and saying "this is art" (and your toilet example would certainly count as that) then it's these framings and reframings that matter more than anything else. If art is simply a framing or pointing, then this conversation is meta-art.

If, on the other hand, there is an intrinsic Golden-mean-like intrinsic value to individual works of art (which I tend to doubt there is, too) then these sorts of conversations would concern themselves more with weights and measures. It reminds me of the central divide in stock market analysis, where some brokers claim that you should buy stocks for their fundamentals, and others claim that the only thing that matters is their changing market value. It's easy for Warren Buffet to say that fundamentals like price-earnings ratios are more "real" than emotionally driven speculation, but you can earn a hell of a lot of real money betting on nothing other than the changing tastes of speculators.

So if art is an open exchange of cultural ideas and propositions, with valuations that move up and down according to popular taste, then it is, in itself, the universal language through which we both enact and analyze the collective postulating you suggest.

But for art truly to rise to this linguistic function, then haircuts must be seen as being potentially as communicative and resonant as Handel. There must be an absolutely freemarket of evaluations and exchange. And this is a much too frightfully populist and anti-elitist assumption for many to make. The illusion of intrinsic value keeps many art collectors invested, and many cultural institutions in business.

The competing genes of Darwinian-style evolution are based in intrinsic value and systems of survival; the competing memes of cultural evolution, or art, are based in market value and systems of sharing and exchange. The former is science: life or death. The latter is art and culture: meta. Survival of the fittest gene vs. replication of the coolest meme.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF is the author of Cyberia, Media Virus, Playing The Future, Ecstasy Club, and columnist for New York Times Syndicate and Time Digital.

From: Pamela McCorduck
Submitted: 4/7/97

I think my good friend Jaron just forgot himself when he made the distinction between "rational" art and — what? Irrational art? Most of the influential artists I've been able to think of have been highly rational about their art (from the Greeks through the Renaissance though Cezanne and even, maybe especially, Marcel Duchamp).

The issue of whether computer images can be art misunderstands what art is. The short answer is, of course computer images can be art: many of them are not, even among the ones that aspire to it, but there's nothing in the medium that prevents art happening, any more than stone prevents art from happening, or oils prevent art from happening.

Brian Eno made a provocative talk when he presented the Turner Prize in 1995, where he suggested that artists take a look at the way scientists answer the questions they raise, as compared to the way artists answer the questions they raise. (If this was in your interview, I'm sorry—a software crash interfered with my full reading of Brian's remarks). This is one of the chewiest topics I've come across in a long time, and is well worth thinking about.

PAMELA McCORDUCK is a writer; author of Machines Who Think; The Universal Machine; The Rise Of The Expert Company; Aaronıs Code; and coauthor of The Fifth Generation; and The Futures Of Women.

Copyright ©1997 by Edge Foundation, Inc.


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