Authenticity – Part One

Monterey, California 1959
Monterey, California 1959

There is strong evidence from cognitive psychology that we are by nature highly attuned to detecting cheaters. This makes evolutionary sense, because one of our distinctions as a species is our cooperativeness, our ability to trust and share with others. Cheaters naturally arise in an environment of trust, and our obsession with cheater detection limits the number of cheaters in a group. We punish cheaters, as well as those who fail to punish cheaters.

We are also obsessed about genealogy. One of the reasons languages tend to develop arbitrary rules that have little to do with transmitting meaning is to sharpen the ability of experienced speakers to detect outsiders. In “My Fair Lady,” ’Enry ‘Iggins claimed to be able to tell what London block someone came from by their accent.  Early humans evolved in small groups, and it was important to know who was “in” and who was “out,” not only to know who was on your side, but to avoid incest. Likewise, we are exquisitely sensitive to nuances of the appearance and behavior of others. We are deeply interested in whether the person across from us is genuinely smiling, or just putting on a smiley face while wishing you would go away. The battle between our drive to reproduce and our need to establish the authenticity of our partner’s professions of love figures in the plot of many a tale (sadly, this obsession with whether we are insiders or outsiders underlies our xenophobia).

Both art and science rely heavily on these two traits working together. Doing science is intensely cooperative and based on trust, so science cheaters make headlines and lose their credibility, and often their jobs. Also, it must be possible in principle to trace the genealogy of evidence back through all the actions taken to arrive at it. Scientists are highly skeptical and openly critical of each other, and as a result, there is a culture of cooperation and trust that makes it unnecessary to check every step in a discovery unless someone smells a rat, In the end, the findings of science are the consensus of experts (I borrow this from a lecture at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole by Harvard historian of science Naomi Oreskes). I have more to say on this subject elsewhere.

Genealogy is important in art for similar reasons. Much of the value of a work of art depends on how sure you are that it is genuine. Musicologists research and argue about whether a note in a score was intended to be an A or an A#, how and when improvised decorative figures were originally used in the Baroque and Classical eras, or whether a newly discovered chorale was written by Bach, a contemporary of Bach, or a present-day charlatan. Never mind that the average listener can’t tell the difference – the experts can. Art that can be faked needs a pedigree to maintain its monetary value, and as these are not always easy to document, cheating is more widespread in art than in science.

One much-discussed subject is why an art work with a pedigree is better in some way. Can’t a work be judged simply through your senses? Imagine three Federal style silver cups. They are all exquisite and physically identical, except that the first is by an unknown silversmith, the second is by Paul Revere, and the third, also by Paul Revere, was owned by George Washington. No doubt their monetary value is in the same order, and escalates dramatically from one to the other. Yet without their pedigrees (no fair turning them over to see the silversmith’s marks on the bottom) they are indistinguishable.

You can see that provenance is much more important in science than in art, because the whole enterprise of science is founded on authenticity, whereas a work of art can in principle stand on its own, although its monetary value and part or most of its public appeal lies in its provenance.

When talking about authenticity, I think most of us would equate it with whether something is genuinely what it is advertised to be. But there are other aspects to authenticity that are more subtle and more interesting, and I want to focus on those in subsequent installments.

Odd Man Out

The Author at Age 4
The Author at Age 4

I was, and am, an odd duck. One manifestation of this is that I withdraw from things other people do. I hated sports. I can vividly recall an incident from the sixth grade, probably reconstructed from several such incidents, when despite my being placed in the relatively safe position of right field, some jerk swung late and the ball headed straight for me. The damn thing was big and hard and moving fast, and humans evolved to get out of the way of such things, which I did. Groans, “Tully’s done it again,” that sort of thing. Luckily, the rare hit in my direction usually dropped short and rolled (if I stood far enough out), so that I could, with luck, pick it up and throw it to the wrong base.

Music was important to me in my teens, but not the music everyone else listened to. I went to the library and picked out 78 records that I had not heard, discovering Bartok and Bantock and especially Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps which I listened to over and over with an equally maladjusted friend, letting my imagination run wild through the mists of prehistoric time. My high school peers were listening to rock and roll, the newest thing in the 1950’s, and to me they were illiterate unwashed hoodlums who spent their time in car shop chopping and channeling old Fords to make hot rods. I was far above such trash. I was an intellectual. I belonged to the model railroad club. It didn’t help that my much older brother, a talented jazz trumpeter, shared my disdain for rock and roll.

Berkeley was a shock. In my third semester, when I lived in an apartment instead of a dorm, my virginity was terminated by an older woman (Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto was on the radio). Later, she persuaded me to leave college and go with her to the Olympic Peninsula to pick ferns (such people were called “Bohemians” in those pre-hippie days). My mother had to take the train up from LA to keep me in school. I withdrew from the relationship when she called me at 2 AM during summer break, waking the whole household because in those days you had one phone in the middle of the house and everyone’s door was open because no one had air conditioning.

My first drunk was sensational. At some point I withdrew from being conscious. The first thing I remember was being led around the block by the girl assigned to bring me back to earth. For the next month I heard one tale after another, told with malicious hilarity, about how I had made passes at every female present. I quenched the terrifying prospect of being successful with women by getting sick thereafter whenever I had too much to drink.

But I digress. Over my life, I have withdrawn from one aspect of cultural life after another. As I describe elsewhere, I stepped outside religion at age 14 (I’m back, sort of). I enjoyed television for many years, until my wife and I decided we just didn’t have the time or the patience to pick the wheat from the mountains of chaff and gave up the habit when I was 60 or so. This makes it hard to converse and can cause embarrassment.

For example, as I write, Prince has just died. I had heard the name, and an extravagant fuss was made over his passing, so I went to You-Tube and watched “Cream,” from 1991. It was the classiest pornography I have ever seen, even better than the cover of Cosmo. The guy was a genius, and I missed him entirely. Oh, well, I did tune into Michael Jackson and Led Zeppelin and The Wall, thanks to the kids. A noted psychoanalyst friend and his wife introduced me to the Sergeant Pepper album and I never looked back. I introduced her to Bartok. How could she not have known about Bartok?

Having bowed out of a belief system shared by most Americans, along with popular culture, I was on a roll. Over the years, I and others have observed that our infrastructure is not being maintained. I was all in favor of a crash program to repair infrastructure until I read an article by a civil engineer pointing out that our infrastructure is a Ponzi scheme. Here’s how it works.

Americans like to live in the country, but they have to work in the city. Americans do not like to pay taxes or mortgage payments. Solution: divide up the cheap farmland into little parcels, connect them with roads and bridges, and add sewer, water, electricity, telephone, cable, gas, street lights and other infrastructure. Build inexpensive houses out of wood, which is OK because they aren’t attached to each other, so you can burn up your home without burning up your your neighbors’ homes.

Now most infrastructure has a life span of 60 to 100 years, so you need to salt away some property taxes in a trust fund to repair the infrastructure and replace it when it wears out. This is an unpopular idea. Bernie Madoff to the rescue! Build more infrastructure so you get more taxes, and use the new taxes to fix the old infrastructure. This works splendidly until the infrastructure needs to be replaced.

So our suburban approach to living doesn’t work. I spent many years designing nice solar houses for people living in suburbs, doing research on building houses, and writing and teaching about houses. Now I had to admit that this was all a mistake and that I must in good conscience withdraw from this wicked practice. I love designing houses and must admit to cheating from time to time. Inconveniently, we live in a suburban house.

This led me to the notion that civilization is a Ponzi scheme. Think about it: we invent a clever way to do things, and then we have to invent another clever thing to deal with the unexpected consequences of the first clever thing. Take mills for instance. We invented machines to do the more work with fewer workers, but mill-owners exploited the workers, so we needed rules and bureaucracy to stop them. More bureaucracy means more taxes, and as I just mentioned Americans don’t like taxes (or rules for that matter). So we skimp on taxes and the infrastructure stops working.

Mill on the Mayenne, 2001
Mill on the Mayenne, 2001

Another example: whale oil is a lot better for making light than wood or wax, so we cut down a lot of trees to build whaling ships. Just as we were running out of whales, we discovered oil. This saved the whales for a while, but oil made shipping cheaper, so now the ships are threatening whales with their noise.

Well, if civilization is a Ponzi scheme, maybe it wasn’t such a great idea. I needed perspective to think about this, but withdrawing from civilization did not appeal to me. The next best thing was pretending to be a visiting alien, which given my history as an outsider wasn’t all that hard. A little observation convinced me that human nature was to blame.

First I had to decide whether human nature exists. This is controversial. John Locke back in the 17th Century decided that there wasn’t much to human nature because we were born with minds that are blank slates (except of course for those pesky instincts like sex) and we learn how to behave through experience.

On the other side of the net were people like Hobbes and Machiavelli, who thought humans have a nature and that it is intractably wicked (I’m not sure what they thought of themselves). The battle lines were drawn: it was nature versus nurture.

Today scientists generally agree that we have a human nature, but that how it gets expressed varies a lot due to our having big heads. We are born prematurely because a fully developed brain won’t fit through the birth canal, so the long trek from conception to maturity leaves ample time for our parents, peers and culture to shape how our human nature is expressed.

Some psychologists and other scientists believe that we can overcome the parts of human nature that we don’t like by using conscious reasoning. Others believe that for all practical purposes, we can’t and don’t. I subscribe to the latter school.

Of course, as my son pointed out, this raises the question of why I am so sure about which school I belong to, because I must have used conscious reasoning to arrive at my decision. That’s why I inserted that little “for all practical purposes” qualifier. I believe we really can reason consciously, it’s just not something one normally does. But I may be wrong about this – I think.

Some people, especially scientists, believe that science is how you find out what’s actually going on in the world because it deals with facts you can demonstrate by experiment. If you use science, you can get to the moon, although we don’t normally do this either. Whereas if you use prayer or magic or certain chemicals, you may THINK you went to the moon, but you didn’t actually go there, according to scientists and probably most of your friends. (Some people believe the moon trips by astronauts were an elaborate hoax perpetrated by the government to force Colgate to use fluoride in their toothpaste – it worked!)

All this inspired me to look further, and I found a scientist who cleared things up for me. He pointed out that we are the kind of animal that doesn’t have an “off” switch for acquiring things. This seems about right, based on how much stuff my wife and I have in our basement and attic. During 50 years of marriage one tends to accumulate stuff.

For example, we have 3 or 4 nifty U-shaped vegetable peelers. You really only need one. We found that they worked as well as the guy who peeled mountains of vegetables at the Boston Flower Show said they did. They get dull after a while, so we bought new ones, but couldn’t part with the old ones. We are thinking of moving, so stuff is on my mind.

I believe that I have to withdraw from the human race to think about all this. This is definitely a challenge, but I am working on it. Luckily, I have a head start.

The Wonderful, and Wonderfully Misleading, Powers of Ten

P1000406

I was lucky enough to study in my first year of college under the designer/architect Charles Eames, inventor of the molded plywood chair (among many other things). He showed us the first draft of a movie he called “Powers of Ten” which zoomed in and out in a sequence of images depicting what you would see if every ten seconds you multiplied the distance by a factor of ten. The movie moved outward to galactic scales, then inward to atomic particle scales, covering 40 powers of ten. On the trip out, the first version had a neat clock that showed you what percent of the speed of light you were moving. This was dropped from the version referenced.

Eames remade the movie in 1977, advised by a number of scientists including Philip Morrison, a physicist who also narrated the film. You can find it at http://www.gearthblog.com/blog/archives/2012/02/the_powers_of_ten.html

Philip Morrison is one of my heroes. He worked on the Manhattan Project and could read a substantial book in a day. He wrote the book reviews during the golden years of Scientific American when Martin Gardner was writing “Mathematical Games” and the magazine featured beautiful pointillist pencil drawings.

The link takes you to the Google Earth blog, unsurprisingly, since Google Earth uses the same technique to zoom you in to your chosen site (except it “only” zooms by 7 powers of ten, i.e. ten million times). Another term for powers of ten is order of magnitude.

Powers of ten is a way of thinking about exponential growth. The concept is a two-edged sword. One edge is an indispensable tool for understanding nature; the other is among the most misleading concepts in modern life. “Powers of Ten” allows us in just a few minutes to visualize the smallest thing we have direct evidence for (quarks) and the largest (super-clusters of galaxies), over 40 powers of ten.

Thinking in terms of powers of ten is routine for mathematicians, scientists and statisticians. But in our daily lives things grow by adding up. We think and act linearly, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and so on. Thinking exponentially you get 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128 and so on. Already in just eight steps, powers of two has outdistanced our thinking by a factor of eight. Using powers of ten, you get 1, 10, 100, 1,000, 10,000, 100,000, 1,000,000, 10,000,000. Eight steps and you go from an individual to nearly the population of New York City.

This huge disparity in modes of thinking can be seen more clearly using examples.

There is a famous Chinese story about a poor man who was granted a wish from the Emperor. He asked that he be given one grain of rice, but added the stipulation that on each successive day, he would receive twice what he had received on the previous day (powers of 2, or doubling). In a month he owned just over a billion grains (230) and it wasn’t long before he owned all the rice in China.

Another often-cited example is lilies on a pond. Let’s say your pond is 750 feet in diameter, which comes out to 10 acres – nice big pond. Let’s assume a lily takes up 1 square foot, and that the number of lilies doubles every year.

You start with one lily, hardly noticeable. After sixteen years, you have just the lily patch you were looking for, covering about about 3/4 of an acre. The next year, however, the lilies cover one-and a half acres and you begin to worry. The next year they cover 3 acres, the year after that 6 acres, and before the end of the next year the entire pond is covered. So it took 16 years to get where you wanted, then less then 3 years to obliterate the pond. This illustration from the wonderful YouTube channel XKCD illustrates the point humorously.

exponential_curve

Some wonderful examples that translate a huge power of ten (67 orders of magnitude) can be found illustrated at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ObiqJzfyACM on one of my favorite YouTube science channels, “Vsauce” narrated by Michael Stevens. The whole 20 minute episode is worth watching, but the examples illustrating a huge power of ten starts at minute 14.

Finally, to illustrate the futility of manned space flight, consider this. It is hard to get a grasp on the sobering fact that the universe is almost empty of matter as we experience it. Of the three components of the mass of our universe, ordinary matter accounts for maybe 2-3 percent, the rest being mysterious “dark matter” and the even more ubiquitous and mysterious “dark energy.”

Our solar system, which compared with outer space is as crowded as a subway platform, is terrifyingly empty. I made a conceptual model of our solar system at a scale of 1 billion to one, set in a place familiar to many. Here is an illustration showing the model:

Manhattan small

 

Imagine that the sun is a ball about four and one-half feet in diameter, on a pedestal in the Grand Army Plaza in front of the Plaza Hotel at 59th Street and 5th Avenue in Manhattan.

The orbit of Mercury, the inmost planet, crosses 5th Avenue a block away, at 60th Street, and is about half the diameter of your little fingernail. Venus at 61th Street and Earth near 62nd street are about the size of your middle fingernail. Our moon is half the size of a pencil eraser and is 15” from the earth.

Mars, another block away, is a little bigger than Mercury. Then there is a gap where the asteroid belt occurs, with the largest asteroid being virtually invisible, the size of a fine grain of sand. Outside the gap is the first of the “giant” gaseous planets, Jupiter, which in this model is the breathtaking size of a large grapefruit, with an orbit that crosses 5th Avenue around 70th Street. Another 7 blocks gets us to softball-sized Saturn. At 95th Street we encounter the orbit of Uranus, which like Neptune at 115th Street is 2” in diameter.

In this model, the orbit of Neptune, now the outermost planet, swings out over the Hudson and into Union City, NJ, then back across the river and down Houston Street, across Brooklyn and Queens passing through the Sunnyside Railroad Yards before crossing the East River back into East Harlem. This is plotted on another Google Earth image:

Manhattan large

Now that you have a sense of the sizes of these bodies and their orbits, try to imagine away everything else: the earth below, New York City, the sky above, and replace it with black emptiness. Just a 4-1/2 foot ball of fire surrounded by tiny spheres slowly orbiting in one plane, the outermost of which is almost 3 miles away and the size of a golf ball. And this is a high density of matter by the standards of the universe.

Within this disk of orbiting motes 5 ½ miles in diameter we humans have traveled the distance from your elbow to your fingertips. Mars is 150 feet away, while the nearest star at this scale is the distance of a trip around the earth, 25,000 miles. We talk a good game about fleeing into the galaxy when the going gets too tough here on earth, but the facts are starkly clear: we will forever need to cling to the nurturing surface of our tiny speck in the vast emptiness that surrounds us.

It pays to keep our nest in good shape, as it is all the home we will ever have.