All posts tagged as physics

18 Feb

The Angel and the Uncarved Block

In Essays by poeticinterconnections / February 18, 2010 / 2 Comments

 

Michelangelo's angel

 

As February speeds by, I’m a few weeks into teaching my first full-length class: Spirituality, Science, and the Creative Process at Otis College of Art and Design. I’m blessed with a tight group of intelligent, engaged students, so I’m having a great time. And interweaving art and creativity into my poetic interconnections between spirituality and science is revealing itself to be an inspiring exercise.

Researching material for our first session, I found a famous quote by Michelangelo that, somehow, I’d never heard before. Explaining one of his most famous sculptures, the artist said, "I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free."

My mind fairly quickly derailed. I thought immediately about p’u—the Taoist ideal of the uncarved block.

In Chinese philosophy, our most natural state of being is simple and undefined. Before experiences and judgments introduce distinctions such as good/bad, right/wrong, and even me/you into our thinking, we all enter the world as blank canvases. We have no fixed mental forms and thus infinite potential for becoming. This state of being is highly desirable, as it mimics the tao—the sacred Way of the universe. So in Taoism, p’u is the goal of life.

About.com describes this ideal beautifully as "perception without prejudice".

Physics describes a similar condition, calling it symmetry. An oft-cited example of this is a pencil balanced on its tip. For the briefest of instants, the pencil has no preferred direction for falling. Its possibilities are equal, therefore symmetrical. But as soon as the pencil tips one way or the other its symmetry is broken. Infinite potential yields one actualized outcome. It’s both a triumph and a tragedy.

Physicists believe that right after the Big Bang our earliest universe was highly symmetrical: matter, light, and the fundamental forces (gravity, electromagnetism, etc.) were indistinguishable. Only with time did differentiation enter our universe, as the energy from its explosive birth calmed and cooled and light clarified from dust, matter decoupled from force.

Our universe, too, began as a blank canvas.

Michelangelo made a miracle: he actualized the potential in the marble, breaking its symmetry in an act of loving creation. A Western mystic might say he imitated God. I believe creative artists channel divinity every time they sit to work. I’m teaching this idea in class. In doing so, though, I realize I’m betraying some of my source material. Eastern spiritual traditions believe differentiated creation is illusory and a source of suffering, advocating a return to a state of unrealized potential so pure it precludes rebirth into the world.

And so an interesting question presents itself: Is God the slab of marble or the angel Michelangelo revealed inside? Is divinity the Taoist uncarved block or the forms we recognize as ourselves? Is our ideal condition perfectly symmetrical or the broken symmetry necessary for creation?

Comments welcome.

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02 Jan

A Superfluid New Year, Reprise

In Essays by poeticinterconnections / January 2, 2010 / 4 Comments

Last New Year’s Day I wrote a heartfelt blog post exploring a poetic interconnection among Taoism, physics, and the turning of the year. Today I feel inspired to reprise that essay, slightly revised, for those of you who’ve joined me in 2009… This one’s for you!

I love Chinese philosophy—its naturalness, its easy wisdom.

I’m in good company: Taoism may be the most popularized religious mysticism in the world. Books about any variety of topics have the phrase “The Tao of…” in their titles. A quick search at Amazon yields The Tao of Healing, The Tao of Eating, The Tao of Photography, and even The Tao of Network Security Monitoring! And in contemporary America, the Chinese words yin and yang have become cultural fall-back terms for the idea of interdependent opposites. They’re part of the pop lexicon.

A key Taoist concept that’s less widely known is wu wei. This Chinese term is perhaps best translated as “effortless doing”. The paradoxical phrase describes an orientation of self-surrender to the tao—the all-encompassing Way of the natural universe. Essentially, wu wei is pure acceptance of the process of life and the sacred rightness of every moment. It’s about moving in the world by flowing with it.

Religious scholar Huston Smith, in his seminal book The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions, summarizes the idea this way:

Action in the mode of wu wei is action in which friction—in interpersonal relationships, in intra-psychic conflict, and in relation to nature—is reduced to a minimum.

In physics, a superfluid is a phase of matter in which viscosity is zero. Viscosity is a term that describes a liquid’s resistance to flow, or disturbance by other substances. A thin liquid like water has low viscosity: it flows quick and easy and other substances move through it without much bother, their speed only slightly effected. A thick liquid like honey has high viscosity: it flows slow and sluggish and other substances struggle to move through it, becoming seriously held up as they try.

Viscosity, then, is a measure of a liquid’s friction.

In a superfluid, there’s basically no friction at all. This means a superfluid flows infinitely smooth, and things move within it resistance-free. So anything in motion inside a superfluid stays in motion, theoretically, forever. With no friction to slow or stop it, a process inside a superfluid unfolds unendingly!

A superfluid strikes me as an interesting analogy for the tao. And the quality of superfluidity is such a cool metaphor for wu wei.

So… Today commences a new calendar year: it’s 2010! This blog post is a benediction: May we all have a superfluid new year, characterized by the utmost wu wei—with friction within and among us reduced to a minimum, our lives flowing infinitely smooth, and our happinesses unending.

Thank you for your readership! Love and blessings to you.

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01 Jan

A Superfluid New Year

In Essays by poeticinterconnections / January 1, 2009 / 7 Comments

I love Chinese philosophy—its naturalness, its easy wisdom.

I’m in good company: Taoism may be the most popularized religious mysticism in the world. Books about any variety of topics have the phrase “The Tao of…” in their titles. A quick search at Amazon yields The Tao of Healing, The Tao of Eating, The Tao of Photography and even The Tao of Network Security Monitoring! And in contemporary America, the Chinese words yin and yang have become cultural fall-back terms for the idea of experienced, simultaneous opposites. They’re part of the pop lexicon.

A key Taoist concept that’s less widely known is wu wei. This Chinese term is perhaps best translated as “effortless doing”. The paradoxical phrase describes an orientation of self-surrender to the tao—the all-encompassing Way of the natural universe. Essentially, wu wei is pure acceptance of the process of life, and the sacred rightness of every moment. It’s about moving in the world by flowing with it.

Religious scholar Huston Smith, in his seminal book The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions, summarizes the idea this way:

Action in the mode of wu wei is action in which friction—in interpersonal relationships, in intra-psychic conflict, and in relation to nature—is reduced to a minimum.

In physics, a superfluid is a phase of matter in which viscosity is zero. Viscosity is a term that describes a liquid’s resistance to flow, or disturbance by other substances. A thin liquid like water has low viscosity: It flows quick and easy, and other substances move through it without much bother, their speed only slightly effected. A thick liquid like honey has high viscosity: It flows slow and sluggish, and other substances struggle to move through it, becoming seriously held up as they try.

Viscosity, then, is a measure of a liquid’s friction.

In a superfluid, there’s basically no friction at all. This means a superfluid flows infinitely smooth, and things move within it resistance-free. So anything in motion inside a superfluid stays in motion, theoretically, forever. With no friction to slow or stop it, a process inside a superfluid unfolds unendingly!

A superfluid strikes me as an interesting analogy for the tao. And the quality of superfluidity is such a cool metaphor for wu wei.

So… Today commences a new calendar year for all of us living in the modern world. It’s 2009! This blog post is a benediction: May we all have a superfluid new year, characterized by the utmost wu wei—with friction within and among us reduced to a minimum, our lives flowing infinitely smooth and our happinesses unending.

Thank you for your readership! Love and blessings to you.

Add a comment »