A Second Peek at Quantum Mechanics: The Double Slit Experiment


The double slit experiment is justifiably considered among the most simple, elegant and profound experiments in science.

In this experiment, we show first that light acts like a wave. This was first done two hundred years ago.

To see this you need to know that waves in the same place interact by adding up together. This is called “interference.”

If you take the peak, or crest, (the highest part) of one wave and add it to the peak of another wave, that is, if both waves (whether water or light or a mathematical wave on paper or in computer bits) are in the same place, you get a peak that is the sum of both waves. That is, the combined peak is as tall as both wave peaks added together. If the two waves are the same size it is like adding +1 + 1 to get +2. Similarly the troughs (the lowest part also add up to get deeper troughs, like adding -1 and -1 to get -2. So add two waves of the same size in the same place, perfectly aligned, and you get a wave that is twice as big (both peak and trough).

If you add the peak of one wave to the trough of a wave of the same size alined in the same spot, they cancel each other out.  Adding the peak and trough of waves of the same size that are alined peak to trough, it is like adding +1 (the peak) and -1 (the trough) to get 0.

There are also times where there are in between parts of the wave or waves of different sizes where the + and – numbers may not be the same, or cases where waves of the same size  are not exacly lined up. In fact it gets quite complex and to do it right you need calculus (Fourier analysis). A simple example is shown in the image below. The red wave is what we would measure or  “see” (say if these were visible light waves, or hear if they were sound waves) by adding the two smaller gray waves. this may be easiest to see where the two grey waves cross in the middle of the illustration; that point in the center where the gray waves cross is half the height of the red wave at that location.




So waves in the same place add up (constructive interference) or subtract from one another (destructive interference).

The set up for the double slit experiment  is a board with two small slits. Send a light through only one of the slits, and you will see the light in a pretty discreet area approximating the slit on the wall opposite the slit. Same would happen if you send light only through the other slit. Like a flashlight through a window. Now open both slits. You get a pattern of bars of light and dark because waves from the two slits interact. Where crests of the two waves hit the wall at the same time, they add up to a bright spot. Where the crest of one wave and the trough of the other wave lines up they cancel each other out.



This image shows how the series of waves wave to the left hits the wall and then part of the waves go through each slit. After going through the slits the waves radiate out in ever larger concentric circles, the two now expanding waves overlapping as they progress to the right.


In this  schematic we are looking down on the experiment, with the peaks of the complex wave on the right labelled “wave intensity” indicating where the peaks of the two expanding waves overlap after passing through the two slits and would be seen as bright areas on the wall opposite. Note that the brightest, or highest, peak is in the middle of the area labelled “wave intensity.” This highest/brightest peak is BETWEEN the areas of the wall opposite the two slits. This is exceedingly strange in that when allowing light to go through either one slit or the other, this area would have had little light.  The light from the individual open slit would have been either to the right or left of this central area, across from whichever single open slit the light went through.  This is like shining flashlights through each of two windows and finding the brightest light on the opposite wall not across from each of the the windows but between the spots on the wall where the light form each window would hit the wall. This drives home show different light coming from two slits is from just combining light from two slits. It really can only be explained in terms of waves.


This image shows what you see in an actual experiment using red laser light. The top image is what you see with one slit open,the slit to the right,  a somewhat smeared out single spot. The bottom image shows the interference pattern with the two slits open, again with the brightest spot in the middle and other spots extending way to the right and left of where the light was from the individual open slit.

Now, light is also a particle.

If you send one photon (the smallest discreet unit of light) at a time through a double slit and have a VERY sensitive device  opposite the slits that will register one photon at a time, you will see individual pings, individual particles, in discreet areas. If you have one slit open, the pings will be all in the area opposite that slit. Open both slits and you still just see individual pings, but over time they will form the same interference pattern as the waves of light did. Of course the waves of light were made up of vast numbers of photons, but sure, they could had in aggregate acts a a waves; maybe each has “waviness” that becomes a property of the whole when they are together like that. Maybe it is an “emergent” phenomenon of vast numbers of photons interacting.

Nope. We can send one photon or other particle (or atom or even collection of atoms) through the slits at a time and see that that isn’t true.






In the top image we see schematically one green particle (atom or photon or “Bucky ball” molecule of dozens of carbon atoms) is going through at a time through two slits. Again, we would expect, if they are like little pellets, to result in a pattern we see here with two bars indicating that the pellets hit the screen opposite the slit they went through. But what happens is that over time they form the interference pattern just like a wave would even though one particle at a time went through one or the other slit. Note that in the lower image the bands start with random appearing dots but a patter evolves over time (and we see bands here that are oriented horizontally; just make it vertical in your mind if that confuses you; if it were the experiment with the green pellets/particles these bands would be vertical of course; or you can picture one horizontal slit above the other instead of next to each other. I’ll update this later with better diagrams) In panel a there are a few seemingly randomly placed white”hits” on the detector (here the photons register ass white against the black background). Similarly in b there is little to no pattern yet despite hundreds of hits. But c-e show increasing refinement of the pattern and loss of apparent randomness.

Here is the really cool part. The part that has physicists, mystics, Zen teachers and philosophers buzzing. It doesn’t matter how much later the next particle (or atom or molecule) goes through. Or when then the next one after that goes through. You can wait an hour or a year between particles if you are patient enough. And they don’t form the pattern in a way that is predetermined. Each time the order and location of the individual pings will be different: just where the first, and second, and trillionth particle lands won’t be the same in subsequent trials, but however random it seems, they will land so that the wave interference pattern forms.

Like with our spin L and R adding up to no horizontal spin over time when we send U or D particles along in the post of our first peek at quantum mechanics, we again see that our idea of time space and object permanency is a bit, really quite a bit, off. Where does the pattern reside?  How does an abstract mathematical function, a wave, translate into the behavior of particles, which themselves are energy patterns? How does each particle “know” where it is needed to be to keep the pattern?

It even gets better. If you measure, in any subtle way, which particles go through which slit, you loose the wave interference pattern. The act of observing changes it! The magic is gone, the particles lose their “memory.”

Physicists have been debating for a hundred years what this means. For now, let us just savor it.


(PS I will keep working on this to make it clear as I can with more illustrations and less repeating, but I thought worth getting it down and seeing what is clear and what isn’t to people)



For Father’s Day: Is that so?


I was writing a story riffing on a tale about the great Japanese Zen reformer and artist of the 18th century, Hakuin.

It seems a young unmarried women had a baby and wouldn’t give up the name the father. Finally she said it was the monk Hakuin. The parents were incensed, not only because he was a monk who was just starting out renovating a small, run-down old temple, but also because they had been supporting him in his endeavors.

They brought him the baby and said, here, it’s yours.

“Is that so?” He responded, and he took care of the baby.

A year later the young woman confessed that Hakuin wasn’t the father, so her parents went back to Hakuin, tails between their legs, and let him know the baby wasn’t his.

Giving the baby back he responded:

“Is that so?”



Nyogen Roshi told me Maezumi Roshi told him it may have been about someone else, not the well-known Hakuin. Maybe, but it’s just a story, right? I am still looking but haven’t seen this one in his autobiography or his student Torei’s biography (so far; I’m still looking) of Hakuin. Of course although there is a lot of material available in English, not all of Hakuin’s writings have been translated.

In fact, it is clear Hakuin enjoyed a good story. If you read Waddell’s translations of Hakuin there are all sorts of footnotes where it seems Hakuin just made things up. Hakuin even called one of his works “Tale of a Trip on a Night Boat” which was a phrase for bullshitting (it comes from a story about a peasant who said he had visited Kyoto, but when asked about a boat trip on a river there he came up with a whole river boat adventure despite that the river in question was not one of Kyoto’s real rivers but a small creek. No night boat soirees! He was caught in his lie!).

Hakuin was pretty funny. In one work of art he is smoking a pipe and the curling plume of smoke becomes him in drag as a folk figure of an older woman prostitute. He also cared. He made efforts to broaden Zen to a lay audience and wrote to his more powerful students that they shouldn’t over-tax the poor. I love this guy.




So then why would he take the baby? Wasn’t he complicit in a lie? Was he just a bleeding heart liberal? The obvious interpretation I often hear is that he was so non-attached he just took on whatever was in front of him. That may be true, but I don’t think that’s quite it. That view of non-attachment can get quite out of hand. I have heard that some Zen students (though none I know) think a great Zen master would be so non-attached he or she wouldn’t discriminate between a rock and a potato. That’s just dumb of course. And that certainly wasn’t Hakuin! He had a sense of humor, played the board game Go, was an artist, cared about the poor, bitched about stupid Zen people who thought because they had an enlightenment experience of some sort everything they did was cool. Hakuin shook things up. He discriminated plenty. He wasn’t biting into any rocks and he didn’t start an orphanage as far as I know.

But for whatever reason his practice and samadhi, his insight and penetration, led to ”is that so?” in that instance.

I appreciate this “is that so?” in another way.

I am always asking “is that so;” aren’t you?

Whatever my fevered brain projects, whatever I think I understand, my fears and hopes and desires, whatever my senses present or presents to my senses, whatever phantoms and chimeras I piece together, isn’t “is that so?” a good question? Of course not in so many words, and usually not consciously, but isn’t that pretty basic?

Even more basically, delusion aside, isn’t it just the Great Question of Existence, of life and death? Isn’t “is that so” the question of each moment, the question that is always being answered in the moment?

Why a question and not a declarative “that’s so”? I don’t know, but for me it just kind of usually is. Maybe it is my ignorance. But seems like sometimes it was like that for Hakuin too. Maybe sometimes he answered: “that’s so.” Maybe even sometimes just: “So”! I wouldn’t put it past him. But I just made that up.

I am not Hakuin, so go ask him for yourself if you can. I’m just saying “is that so” goes much deeper than passive acceptance. It is the sound of practice; it is the sound of the entire cosmos evolving in each moment.

As far as accepting the baby that wasn’t “really his,” don’t we always do that even if the baby is “ours” (i.e. meaning our eggs or sperm or we have kosher legal adoption papers)? Who knows what they are really getting themselves into? What does it means to be “ours” in any case? How do you own anything in this ever changing cosmos?

For that matter, aren’t we always taking each other on, sangha, at work, at play, in the world? Like it or not, legal papers or not? Maybe we are all Hakuin and Hakuin’s baby both.

I think that’s so.

In classical Buddhism it is taught we have all been each other’s father, mother, baby, sibling, lover, friend, enemy, every relationship you can name again and again, time and time again, lifetime after lifetime.

Happy father’s day.






Behind the Curtain; A First Peek into Quantum Weirdness




Quantum mechanics grabs the attention of so many people for some good reasons.

Quantum mechanics deals in the atomic and subatomic realms. In the reductive scientific program it is about as small and basic as you can go based on actual experiments.

The results of these studies have led to highly reproducible observations and measurements.

These findings have led to technologic breakthroughs.

 And because quantum mechanics is counterintuitive, bizarre and no matter how hard you try to picture it, model it in your head, think it through, intellectualize, fit in into your daily four dimensional experience of reality, you will fail, like thousand upon thousands of great minds have failed for a hundred years.

Let me start with an example. I will give others in future posts.

Lets say we are going to measure whether someone is standing upright, and call standing with her head up U for up and standing on her head (head down) D for down.

She could also be lying down, with her head to the left L would be measured and with her head to the right R would be measured.

We will assume for now those are the only four choices. Yes, she can be off angle, and we could deal with that with simple trigonometry, but it adds nothing to our understanding for now. Off angle measurements will come up later though, it is better not get sidetracked with that at this point. Lets savor the incredible weirdness first.

Now, say we can’t see her, but we have a device that if we align it upright to measure whether or not she is standing it will report U or D, reflecting whether she is standing upright head up (U) or if she is upside down standing on her head (D).

If we align the device horizontally it will also report R or L reflecting whether she is lying with her head to the right or left respectively.

We can only measure U and D or L and R at one measurement depending how our device is oriented.

Also assume once measured, she stays in that position until a measurement in a different orientation of the device is made.

So say we both have our devices aligned upright and you measure U so I know she is standing upright, and indeed that is what I get when I measure her position with my device after you made your measurement. It is as we expected. We both get U. She is standing upright, head up, feet on the ground.

 Now, you would expect that if you measured with your device aligned for standing and you get U indicating that she is upright I would measure neither R nor L if I aligned my device horizontally for lying down. I mean, after all, the person is upright, which is the opposite of lying down. It is 90 degrees away! Nothing overlapping here, standing up versus lying down, we have a clear dichotomy.

Indeed that is what should happen for people-size devices and measured objects. Say the way I knew whether the person was lying down was to look for her head or feet a couple of feet to either side of her belly button. If I find the head to the left, feet to the right, it tells me that she is lying down and in the L direction (head left). But if she is standing (whether on her feet or head) I wouldn’t find the head or feet off center, they would only be off to the left or right if she is lying down! No feet or head off to either side when the person is standing, whether upright or upside down. I should get nothing (zero), no R or L going on, when measuring the lying down aspect of her position.

And that is true for measuring the position of the person. Get a measurement with the first device that she is standing, whether on her feet or head, and then you won’t get a measurement indicating that she is lying down when you measure with the second Device. These are mutually exclusive measurements.

But in the quantum world it is different.

If you measure a subatomic particle as standing (meaning, say, measuring the particle’s polarization or spin, characteristics of particles that do have direction that can be U or D, L or R) and you get a U or D indicating the particle is say spin up or down, when I measure it’s lying down/horizontal position (again, whether spin or polarization, for example) with the second device I DO get a R or L!!!!

It is standing AND lying down? It is spin up and spin to the horizontal?

And even weirder, if we repeat this a bunch of times, when you send me a series of U particles I get a series of  R’s and L’s in the horizontal direction:

Y0u send me a series of U’s and I may get:

R, R, L, R, L, L, L, R, L, R, L, R, R, R, L, L, L, R, L, R, R, etc.

And if you do it enough times, like heads and tails in a fair coin toss, the total number of R’s and L’s will be the same for the series of U particles, they in effect cancel each other out, meaning the AVERAGE horizontal position is zero in the upright particle!

So, how do upright particles give a horizontal answer in the quantum world? And how does the “system” that includes repeated measurements know to average out the results over time? Where in the universe does the “memory” of previous measurements reside so it “knows” to average out to 0, to no “net” horizontal spin in the spin up electron system (or no net horizontal polarization in the vertical polarized photon)?

If you say it is in the property of the electron or photon, then where is this property residing in these fundamental particles? How does a new particle know the property of the last particle? Or of the particle measured a second or hour ago, a billion years or a trillion particles ago?

If you say it is a property of the system of measurement, it may be that could true, but again, where and how so? Where are these properties “written” how are they stored?

There are mathematical and experimental reasons to think that indeed it is not  a matter of such “hidden variables,” and later that may be worth exploring, but even just conceptually, where could they be hidden and how would the next particle know where to find them?

Kind of screws a bit with any mental picture you may have of time and space and what a fundamental thing is, doesn’t it?


Keep It Simple (!)



Granted I have not kept it simple, and since in later posts I plan to discuss things like fields and quantum mechanics, philosophy of mind and time, and other things and concepts that our brains tinker with, I will  put up a simple post.


The best teachings I know of on how to live your life are:

      Pay attention

     No self deception.


The truth of how it works in time and space:

     Everything that ever happened and ever will conspires to make this moment.


The truth beyond what ever happened and ever will:

      I don’t know.


photos courtesy of Susan Levinson



Defining Energy


The palpable universe is all about transformation of energy (see also the post “Change and Suffering, Phantoms and Dreams).

Energy patterns upon energy patterns.

We know energy is fundamental if for no other reason that, besides our intuition and use of the word very freely in common parlance, everyone knows that Einstein informed us that things are convertible to energy and energy to things:

E=MC squared.

Meaning, since C (the speed of light) squared is a constant, just a number that doesn’t change: Energy Is mass. Mass is energy.

But you knew that. The other part of the equation Einstein that wrote that you may not know is for massless particles, like photons, and involves their momentum. Momentum is how much oomph they have. A big thing moving fast has more momentum than a small thing moving slow (it is mass time velocity; velocity is rate of change of position [speed] and direction). But momentum, which is clearly related to the energy of movement, or kinetic energy, is also applied to photons that have no mass and where their energy can not get converted into mass. When a photon is released from a particle with mass, the loss of a photon changes the particle’s energy state but not its mass. Conversely gaining a photon increases the particle’s energy (say an electron) but not its mass. How pure is this photon particle/wave thingy? I mean, what are we talking about here but pure energy? As we know, they aren’t really particles (see the post on “Circles and Waves”) anyway.

But then, particles with mass aren’t really just particles either. They are like photons, wave/particles without mass except that they have a specific property that massless things don’t: they interact with an energy field, the Higgs field (the energy in that field is carried by an energy carrying particle, or boson, the Higgs boson, that recently got so much press when there was evidence found for it in the Large Hadron Collider). So mass is just a function of this particular interaction (the details are way beyond what we should get into here and now). Nothing more.

It is all waves/particles, symmetry and asymetry, energy states and changes in energy. But I find that particularly interesting. Massless particles that do not interact with the Higgs field so they have no mass, energy carriers like photons, have momentum and interact with particles that do have mass. They carry force and make stuff happen. Photons can kick electrons out of a metal if they resonate at the same frequency, the same energy level. It’s called the photoelectric effect. Figuring that out, by the way, was a first step towards quantum mechanics a hundred years ago and is what actually got Einstein his Nobel prize, not relativity theory). But they are themselves not “things” in that sense of having mass, being “matter.” Think about it, it is kind of cool.

So: What IS Energy?

“Energy is one of the most important concepts in science… Yet we cannot give a simple general definition of energy in only a few words.” “..we could define energy in the usual way as “the ability to do work”. This simple definition is not very precise, nor is it valid for all types of energy.” [University Physics for Scientists and Engineers Giancoli 2000 p155-156]:

“There is a fact, or if you wish a law, ….the conservation of energy. It states that there is a certain quantity, which we call energy, that does not change in the manifold changes which nature undergoes. That is a most abstract idea, because it is a mathematical principle; it says that there is a numerical quantity which does not change when something happens. It is not a description of a mechanism, or anything concrete, it is just a strange fact that we can calculate some number and when we finish watching nature go through her tricks and calculate the number again, it is the same.

It is important to realize that in physics today, we have no knowledge of what energy is. We do not have a picture that energy comes in little blobs of a definite amount…. It is an abstract thing in that it does not tell us the mechanisms or the reasons for the various formulas. “[His italics][Richard Feynman Lectures on Physics [4-1, 4-2]

So is energy anything is science? Is it just a placeholder, an accounting trick?

Kind of!

That’s why some just might stop here and say, well screw concepts like this, i’ll just meditate and move on. And they would be in good company. But I suggest we have some fun with it, though I can respect those who’d rather not.

All energy in physics is either the energy of movement, that is kinetic energy, or potential energy. Potential energy is what you give to a rock when you move it up by lifting it off the ground. Let it go and let it rip.  You moved it against gravity, and now gravity can potentially work on it when you let go. So it falls. You can also have electrons with potential energy. That’s a battery. Complete the circuit and let ‘em rip! Your flashlight heats up from the kinetic energy of electrons moving in a filament and that releases photons “hidden” in the atoms of the filament. How hidden? That’s quantum mechanics. And that is where things get very strange, where time and space and our ideas get challenged beyond our ability to even visualize and conceptualize circles and waves. Another post soon!

This applies to all energy.  It applies to the dark energy that is most of the universe, creating space (and so time). It applies to electromagnetic energy, the force of gravity and nuclear energy (the strong and weak force, the latter being  united mathematically to the satisfaction of physicists with electromagnetic every as the electroweak force). It applies to brains, to black holes, to information, to mathematics, to the quantum foam, to mutliverses or strings or whatever creates universes. That is, if physics has it right.If not, back to the drawing board!

Energy is fundamental to all of mechanics, including quantum mechanics. Mechanics in physics relates to movement, and movement is what defines time and space. That is where the job title “mechanic” comes from: it’s someone who works with moving parts. Nothing “happens” in time and space but that there is movement of something, a change in energy from potential to kinetic (let the rock go), or kinetic to potential (lift the rock) of a system, whether the system consists of  subatomic particles (now we are in the realm of quantum mechanics), a system of molecules changing conformation or sliding over each other in your muscles, a rock in your hand lifted higher than where it was before. Before and after, here and there.

Any event in the palpable universe, in the universe of the senses, of the relative, of conditions, of causes, of karma, of experience,of the material, of the mental, is an event because of movement (really; think about it). This is a clue that when we speak of energy in physics we are in the universe of parts, of relationships. We are  in the universe of the senses, the palpable sentient universe. After all, what we sense is changes in energy: changes in light (electromagnetic energy) with vision, air pressure (the kinetic energy of gasses in the atmosphere impacting on our ear drums) with hearing, chemical energy with taste and smelling, kinetic energy of molecules with touch, electrochemical energy in our brains with thinking.


But then quantum mechanics wreaks havoc with what we mean by parts and movement, time and space. I will soon tell you why in another post with the double slit experiment and the interferometer. There is a reason quantum mechanics blows minds.

But first just a few quotes about the internal and external, about conditions, sensation and mind (see also Doman’s post on Meditation):

“I say that, as soon as I conceive a piece of matter or a corporeal substance, I feel myself necessarily compelled to conceive along with it, that it is bounded, and has this or that shape, that in relation to some other body it is either small or large; that it is in this or that place, and in this or that time; that it is in motion or at rest; that it either touches or does not touch some other body; and that it is one, few, or many; nor can I separate it from these states by any act of the imagination. But I do not feel my mind forced to conceive it as necessarily accompanied by such states as being white or red, bitter or sweet, noisy or quiet, or having a nice or nasty smell. On the contrary, if we were not guided by our senses, thinking or imagining would probably never arrive at them by themselves. This is why I think that, as far as concerns the object in which these tastes, smells, colours, etc appear to reside, they are nothing other than mere names, and they have their location only in the sentient body. Consequently, if the living being were removed, all these qualities would disappear and be annihilated.” (Galileo Galilei 1623, pages 196- 197)

“First Principle of Biocentrism: What we perceive as reality is a process that involves our consciousness.” (from the book “Biocentrism” by Robert Lanza, MD)

“Second principle of Biocentrism: Our external and internal perceptions are inextricably intertwined. They are different sides of the same coin and cannot be separated.” (Biocentrism)

The importance of conditions, both internal and external (ultimately these are only terms of convenience) and how we perceive and so understand the world is central to Buddhism as well. The view of the Western scientists Galileo and Lanza (Biocentrism )is not so very different from what we find in the Lankavatara Sutra, a foundational Zen text that is over 1600 years old:

“perceiving consciousness, .. is the result if imperceptible habit-energy and imperceptible transformations, while object-projecting consciousness is the result of grasping different phenomenon and the habit-energy of beginningless projections.”

“who see things as devoid of self existence, as clouds in the sky.. as illusions or mirages or dreams or moonlight on water, and-regardless of whether they appear to be inside or outside the mind- as projections from the beginningless past and as not existing apart from one’s own mind. “

“Blue and red and every color/milk and sugar and conch shells/fragrances and fruits and flowers/the sun the moon and light Like the great ocean and its waves/are neither separate nor not separate/…[but] rise together with the mind”

“existence and non-existence are perceptions of one’s own mind”

“The world of objects that are perceptions of one’s own mind are fabricated and manifested from one’s own projections. They change and disappear every moment, like a river or a seed or a candle of the wind or a cloud… impelled by habit-energy without beginning”

“..all things are characterized by two types of conditions: namely, internal and external.”

“The application of conditions results in a rug from yarn, a mat from grass, a sprout form a seed, and butter form milk. These are the before and after results from external conditions.”

“As for internal conditions, such things as ignorance, desire and karma constitute the conditions,….. give rise to constitute the conditions. They aren’t separate” [Lankavatara Sutra Red Pine trans.]



Photos courtesy of Susan Levinson

Why Zen and Not a Modern Mindfulness Practice for Me?


Print by Claudia Hosso Politi Sensai (teacher at the Black Scorpion Zen Center in Mexico)


If my goal was only to be a little calmer and improve my day-to-day life, a simple modern mindfulness approach would be easier than Zen practice. There is a mindfulness center at UCLA where I work. It looks really good judging form the website and a couple of brief conversations I have had, and would be much more convenient than driving across town to a dicey neighborhood to the Hazy Moon Zen center. Mindfulness practices are certainly less demanding than a sesshin (a very scripted meditation retreat, usually lasting 3-10 days). Maybe it would even be a good career move; I could be the mindfulness eye doc without this Zen baggage!

But I have this itch. I am just not convinced science has all of the answers. I love mathematics. I am clearly a fan of evolution on all levels, even if I don’t think the mechanisms are quite as well understood as biologists think and even if I place it in a larger framework. I have no reason to question that quantum mechanics is the best description of how things go bump in the night (and day of course), that relativity theory allows us to have GPS and is necessary for astrophysics, and that climate change is real and human made (or at least exacerbated by our overpopulation and greed). I appreciate the newest evidence of inflation in the cosmos and the Higgs and the standard theory of particle physics as being quite awesome in the real sense of the word. I am in awe. I see that who we think we are seems to be primarily a product of biologic and environmental conditioning, that our brains and bodies can and will break and who we “are” in our lives changes.

But there is that quality of being, of consciousness, of belonging, of oneness beyond and beneath the realm of the things that go bump, that I think one ignores at the peril of missing out on the really cool stuff. I don’t think neuroscience, M theory, multiverses, the universe as information, or as mathematics, quite captures it, even if they are right!

And I find it awesome that these Zen men and women, many very far from me in culture and language, those who are distant space and time as well as  those I interact with quite often, seem to have explored this territory. It inspires me.

So I do the Zen thing. That covers mindfulness and teases me with more.

I’ll let you know how it goes.


Free Will and the Real Web



Your brain integrates millions of bits of data each millisecond act without any conscious effort. Most activities don’t have even a whiff of free will involved. Walking, breathing, eating, digesting are done without conscious input. Experiments show that when tasked to decide consciously when to more your finger, your brain decides when it will happen before you are aware the decision has been made. Your thoughts are collection of neuronal impulses determined by biology and mediated by feedback loops involving the environment (learning or conditioning). There is the illusion you are making decisions, but that is just an evolutionary trick, an “emergent” phenomenon. You are not the voices in your head/thoughts you are aware of when the debate rages, that is just how the conglomeration of synapses firing or being inhibited manifest. The game is rigged, over-determined.

On the other hand, it certainly is the case that for many complex behaviors and decisions your experience is that you sure seem to have a say in the decision at some point. Even if that is an illusion, you at least have to act that way. You really have NO choice but to act that way. That is how compelling it is. To try to do otherwise is denial, delusion and madness.

In fact, I kind of think the whole free will or not debate is a matter of people getting caught in language and concepts that arise form our perspective as evolved monkeys with magnificent but limited brains.

One thing about thinking there is no free will, is that perhaps it can make you more compassionate. No praise and blame! If someone does something dangerous to others, fix it, like a malfunctioning machine, without a sense of punishment or retribution, without anger. I can appreciate that.  But even that can become pretty hard assed. How do you “fix it”? Keep in mind how often to you want to throw your computer out the window!

In Buddhist terms, you can’t escape your karma, the momentum of everything in all space and time that makes up your life at every moment, as long as you are dealing with the things that involve the senses (including thought), the realm of the relative, of time and space, particle and wave, the universe of change. And this karma is determined by previous decisions and actions, determined by previous… in a never beginning and never ending regression/progression.


It is what the ancients called Indra’s web, a multidimensional weave of infinitely reflective jewels that instantly reflect all change anywhere and everywhere. Really, that’s how it was thought of over a millenium ago in the Avatamsaka sutra. Is there free will there? What set up the web, the wheels within wheels; what makes the change that is instantly reflected?


Be that as it may, the Buddha taught that you can wake up. That however you parse it, you can make the “right effort.”

In each moment.

My advice to those who think otherwise: Don’t think because you have some understanding of information, mathematics, biology and brains you know what there IS.  Don’t get captured by words.

Don’t be arrogant.

Whatever you think, your life is still there. Free will, illusion and all. You know you “act as if” anyway, so embrace it.






My Berlin


A wall I stumbled on in former East Berlin

I have travelled a fair amount, although I was in my 40’s when I first got a passport and took my first trip abroad. My travels are usually connected with medical or scientific research or meetings. I have spoken at such meetings on every continent except Antarctica. This has allowed me to visit most of the really great art collections, to get to know Paris really well, to have friends in many countries, and to make a few dreams come true. One such dream was to go to Egypt as Ancient Egypt has been an interest of mine since I was six years old and first saw the Ancient Egyptian art collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Ancient Egyptian art seems to be an aesthetic you either resonate to or not for the most part. I have good friends who find it garish and boring. Others think it deep and beautiful (I am clearly in that camp). I was not too long ago at a small travelling exhibition of Ancient Egyptian artifacts in Southern California. A girl, maybe eight or nine years old looked into a coffin and saw the image of a goddess drawn at the bottom. She gasped. The goddess wasn’t that well rendered, but the girl was smitten. She got it.

When I went to Egypt I paid to get some special entries. I had the tomb of Seti I, closed to the public, to my self, a guard a guide and a representative of the antiquities department. The latter was an Egyptian PhD candidate who was amazed that I could translate some of the hieroglyphs (and not just a few words but entire phrases). We went into the step pyramid, the world’s first multistory stone building, over 4500 years old, at dawn. As the sun came up over the Nile, I could see nothing of modern civilization standing in the middle of the pyramid complex.  Re Harakhty, hawk god Horus, the sun of the horizon, rising as it ever was.

My interest in art history goes way back. At 16 I blew off homework (I was a poor student) to sit in at an art history class at NYU. I’ve been to most of the great world art collections. At the Vatican, looking up at the marvelous Sistine Chapel ceiling by Michelangelo, my son, who was there with me with his then fiancée (now wife) whispered to me “this is your art Mecca.” I hesitated and he caught that. It might have been the odd juxtaposition of a Moslem metaphor in the Vatican, or more likely just that as beautiful and impressive as it was, it was a bit hollow. I wasn’t that moved. My reaction could have been colored by the e mail I read earlier that day form an on call resident telling me that a post op patient of mine who had a complication had suicidal thoughts because, he thought, of the topical steroid drops and he wanted to stop them (which would make the eye worse). I would have converted to Catholicism right there in the Vatican if I thought it would help! It turned out alright, he did not commit suicide, though he needed a corneal transplant which is a known complication of cataract surgery (and even more so because he started with a sick, at risk eye with a lot of scarring and a bad cataract), and he understood these things happen, and last I heard from the doctor who did the transplant he saw 20/20. But that day, all I knew is my patent, because of my surgery, said he wanted to kill himself.


Water color sketch of Adam of the Sistine Chapel


So anyway, when I had an opportunity to go to Berlin to speak about some of my research at the World Ophthalmology Congress, I looked forward to seeing the famed Egyptian museum there. And of course I did. And of course it was wonderful. But that isn’t why my trip to Berlin was special, much more special than my very special, glorious dream come true trip to Egypt.

Berlin was about redemption.

My father fought against the Germans in World War II, in North Africa, Sicily and then France, Belgium and just into Germany. It was on the beaches of Normandy on D Day stepping over the bodies of his fallen and falling comrades that he decided God was of little relevance or interest to him. He was wounded some months after D Day in a small battle in the Hurtgen Forest on the border of Belgium and Germany just before the Battle of the Bulge. This battle was an Allied defeat, almost all dead or like my father, wounded.

I was brought up in a secular Jewish neighborhood in New York City in the 50’s. People with arms tattooed with numbers, holocaust survivors, were not rare. I was introduced early to the Diary of Anne Frank, and on my first trip to Europe I went to Amsterdam, and visited her house. I bought a first edition of the book, in Dutch called Het Acheterhuis, from an antiquarian bookstore just up the canal from Anne Frank’s house. While a first edition of this book can be quite pricey, they were embarrassed to show it to me because the copy they had was in poor condition. Are you kidding? For $200 I got one of the 1200 copies that were printed (no one knows how many are still in existence) and I got it a few hundred yards from her house. Is that not one of the most awesome souvenirs ever?

So it wasn’t surprising to me that my wife didn’t want to go to Germany. A bit closed minded I thought, but I understood. The sound of German was something we were taught early in life was frightening and ugly.

But Berlin was the only trip I ever took that actually meant anything, that I got something that I couldn’t have gotten from reading a book. Even my marvelous trip to Egypt was just a minor diversion by comparison.



I ate at this restaurant I found walking around the first night in Berlin; it was asparagus season and they had traditional German fare. It is in the former East Berlin, up the block form the upscale restaurant I ate in the last night.


I didn’t do my homework as I usually do before going someplace new; I didn’t read up on Berlin. On purpose. I didn’t want to risk adding to my prejudices and biases. I didn’t even realize at first that my hotel, the Egyptian museum and the wonderful neighborhood they were in had been East Berlin! My last night there I ate at a wonderful small upscale restaurant. 5 different salts! There was a different glass of wine with each of three courses. At any time from the mid to late 1930’s through the fall of the wall, for over 50 years, I would have been killed or imprisoned (and then likely tortured and killed) for being there. For being American. For being Jewish. I could barely fight back the tears; not tears for the past, but of joy for the present. While eating in the open courtyard at this restaurant I heard some American doctors at the next table, the only other patrons there (I was in berlin for a meeting), talking about medical reimbursement. Their voices were grating and distorted, the subject banal and meaningless. They had no appreciation for where they were! But that was them, not me; they couldn’t ruin the beauty of that meal for me.

That was my last night in Berlin, and tears were frequent that trip.



There was the Neu Wachte. I didn’t know what it was; it looked like a bank to me.

But it wasn’t. This was on the outside by the entrance:


This wasn’t just about the Jews, it made clear in the rest of the text, but about all victims, the disabled, Gypsies, homosexuals, the dispossessed and powerless, and those who resisted oppression. And when I walked in this is what I saw. A pieta. A shrouded woman, cradling a dying man, his head in her arms. I couldn’t stand. I had to sit and cry. It literally knocked me off my feet. I was stunned. It may not do that for you. But it did for me.




And there was the only remnants of the offices of the third Reich. Below the grey walls above the ground there were some sickly yellow bricked walls of the basements. How much pain and suffering had been generated there? But I was there looking at their ruins.


Thanks dad.


And there was the Jewish museum, where I bought a replacement for my lost wedding ring (a long story). They had some rings in their souvenir shop already inscribed with biblical verses, but that was not going to happen. I asked the woman there who made the rings to make me a silver ring with the Hebrew “shalom,” peace, in Hebrew, inscribed on it. She did and sent it later.



There was this monument, done by an Israeli artist on the spot of the book burnings of 1933. I didn’t see it at first because the square where it was had been set up for free opera as they were moving the opera. But a young woman who was born in Berlin and returned after the wall came down and who is married to a film maker told me about it, and one evening I walked into the square and a beautiful light was beaming from the ground. Walking up to the light this is what I saw. I cried some more.




There is an ongoing used book fair across from this monument at Humboldt University to celebrate books as a counter to this historic travesty. Most of the books are in German. But I found this one for 5 euros. In the book is a photo of the burning that happened 80 years earlier! The caption reads in part: “the end of Jewish intellectualism” proclaimed Goebbels. Ha! Fuck you Goebbels! Again, the perfect souvenir.



(Not the same photo as in the book, but for copyright purposes I looked for a free access photo)


That beautiful kind Berliner who told me about the installation in the square that commemorated the book burning also gave me an interesting perspective. She was in her forties, and in her twenties she left Berlin for the New York art scene. Then a few months later the wall came down and she returned to Berlin and never regretted it. When she was growing up for her the American Embassy was what stood between her and Soviet totalitarianism.

And the American embassy is by a controversial holocaust memorial.  Here a people sitting on it. All casual light and joy.




I came across the embassy near the Brandenburg gate and the holocaust memorial after visiting the Jewish museum, and talking to that young woman (well young to me) having walked several miles, tired and emotionally raw. When walk go down into it, between those monoliths, they get taller in the middle because the ground gets lower. In the middle it looks like it goes on forever and they loom overhead so you can barely glimpse the sky. More crying. But don’t give up! When you come out of it, there is light, air and the American embassy.

I appreciated that these monuments were put right in the center of Berlin, right in your face, and they were clean and respected. But even more, it was the people; the taxi drivers, the doctors, the waiters and helpful museum guards, the Jewish woman who made my ring at the Jewish museum, the young Austrian doctor I had breakfast with, the woman at the art and souvenir shop.

I am not all that naive. Nor am I attached to the Nazis as the quintessential and uniquely demonic bad guys. I know there are still German Nazi apologists and skinheads and fascists and anti-Semites. I know there have been many mass murders and genocides and examples of ethnic cleansing since then.  America of late has been guilty of its own war crimes and criminal wars and criminal acts that I paid for with my taxes. Sometimes done by people I voted for.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. There is redemption. There is in Berlin. And I wouldn’t know that from reading this or form reading anything. No pictures or poems or works of art out of context of the city itself at the scale of real life would have done it either. I had to be there to see it, hear it, and receive it for myself. Not the death camps for me, but the life of Berlin in the new millennium.

Praise and Blame


The magnetic field


I am impressed by how subtle anger can be, or at least how subtle my anger can seem to ME. It is often very obvious to those around me. And usually to me if I slow down and pay attention or I wouldn’t be writing this.

Nyogen Roshi says Maezumi Roshi told him noting is really hidden.  What makes anger subtle is that I don’t seem to recognize what I am dong or feeling as anger, it is hidden to me in plain sight. That is the nature of delusion! There is a difference between complexity, or magnitude, and subtlety. Something can be complex but not subtle, because you clearly see it for what it is, it is right there in living color and broad daylight. Something can be of minimal complexity and very large, but still subtle because you miss it if you aren’t careful and really look. That is what makes something subtle.

Irritation, impatience and dissatisfaction are anger. Things aren’t how you want them to be, and you just don’t like it. Look carefully, that is anger. The point isn’t to suppress anger, or to blame yourself for it. But if you don’t even recognize it, it owns you.

A most subtle manifestation of anger is praise and blame. Don’t get lost in the words. Sure you want to give feedback, express your vision with authentic and useful comments. Acknowledging that something works and discouraging destructive efforts can be very compassionate and appropriate. Sometimes when injustice is going on being loud and adamant is not anger, it is just saying what has to be said. Sometimes when somebody did or said something clean and righteous, you can share in that moment by expressing your appreciation and gratitude with love. But it is that little (or not so little) something extra where praise and blame come in. Where you manipulate and condition people, even for their “own good.” Unless it really IS for their own good. That distinction can be as subtle as it gets. When you criticize watch for that little (or big) step beyond compassionate feedback to anger. To blaming and shaming. It wasn’t how you thought it SHOULD be. You don’t like it, it is really about you. And when you praise, it is that extra giddiness, that maybe just a bit too much enthusiasm, that implies you WOULD be angry if it didn’t go that way. You want the person to be or do what you have in mind, what you want. You can’t have praise without blame separate any more than you can have a magnet with just either a north or south pole. No matter now small you cut a magnet, even to a proton (1/100,000 of an atom), there is always both a north and south pole.



Change and Phantoms, Suffering and Dreams


Is the river the same river one moment to the next?

Change is the basis for everything that is. In Buddhism this is referred to as “impermanence.”  In Sanskrit the word is anitya (anicca in Pali, wuchang in Chinese, mujo in Japanese). Anything that has component parts, that came together as aggregates in time and space as a result of some set of causes or conditions, presumably following the laws of science, are impermanent.

Nothing lasts forever. It all comes apart.

Impermanence is considered one of the “three marks of existence,” in Buddhism, the other two being being suffering (dukha) and non-self (anatman). The insight that change is fundamental in our lives and its relationship to suffering is at the heart of the story of how a sheltered prince became the Buddha. The Buddha is not an Asian God. Buddha means one who is awake. You might say Buddha is one who does not make chimeras or pursue phantoms as a way to cope with impermanence.

Gautama of the Shakya clan lived in what is now Northern India and Nepal about 2,500 years ago. Tradition has it that when he was born it was foretold that he would be either a great king or great spiritual leader. His father, the king, had the opinion that his son becoming a great king was the preferable outcome. The prince was coddled and protected from life’s harsh realities, and that worked for a while to distract him, keeping Gautama focused on having a good time and being a prince destined to rule. This changed when Gautama was traveling with a servant, kind of slumming it in town outside the palace gates. There he saw a sick person, an old person, and a corpse. Gautama was shaken up much like Gilgamesh was when he lost his friend. That will happen to me, he asked. Yes, his servant, also a friend, answered, it will happen to everybody. Nobody, not even a king, can stop change. The prince then saw a yogi, a spiritual seeker, who seemed to be at peace. How is it possible that the yogi was not totally crazed by all of this? Great yogis can achieve wisdom and not be threatened by change, his companion replied. They can transcend the limitations of life and death.

What was a prince to do? Like Gilgamesh he set off on a quest, but for a different kind of immortality. It was not a permanent body or personality he sought, but the timelessness of enlightenment.

Stealing away at night, Gautama cut his long perfumed hair and gave away his princely clothes. For six years he took up yogic practices. He was very good at it, and his teachers wanted him to become a teacher and carry on their traditions, but he knew that he wasn’t enlightened. He had not come to terms with change, with death. He was driven and took up such severe austerities that he almost died and had to be revived by a drink of milk given to him by a young woman. He used his new energy to meditate and became enlightened.

His fellow yogis thought he had sold out by drinking that milk, so at first they wanted no part of him. But then they saw he was transformed. They asked him to teach them about what he had found and he laid out the Four Truths.

The first truth is the truth of suffering. At best, you can find bliss and have wonderful, ecstatic experiences, achieving prolonged periods of happiness. You can live that life of Gilgamesh, enjoying the things of your world. It isn’t all that bad for most of us most of the time. But somewhere along the line, no matter how hard you try, no matter how sincere and good and kind you are, there will be suffering. It may be no more than a small disappointment, some slight frustration, existential ennui, maybe just boredom, or it could be horrible and devastating pain, but suffering is inevitable. Look at everything you want to have. You either can’t get it, or if you can, you will lose it all someday, when you die if not before. Look at everybody you love. Either you will die first or those you love will die first. Which is better?

The second truth is the cause of suffering. Mistaking what is impermanent as being permanent is one of the traditional Buddhist “inverted views” (Sanskrit viparayasa, Pali vipallasa, Chinese diandao, Japanese tendo) that leads to suffering. The Chinese word literally means upside down; it is a matter of upside down thinking.

We only see our separate lives, our limitations and the world of change, beginnings and endings, birth and death, so we live in fear. We are afraid of change; it means loss. The loss of what we love, what we possess, the loss of our bodies and identities in the long run. Our lives, who and what we seem to be, are a lesson in impermanence. Everything changes by the second. Actually everything changes in incredibly small fractions of a second. So we attach to the bits and pieces of our lives, making up stories that help us stitch together chimeras, projections of our desire to hold on, endowing them in our minds with substance and continuity where there is really vast and uncompromising change. We suffer because we cling to the illusion that if we can stop the flow, stop evolving, just get our lives where we want them to be, we can get it right, keep things static, and live happily ever after.

That won’t happen.

The third truth is that there is a way out of suffering. And the fourth Truth is that way, the practice. It comes down to living in awareness, awake. Surf the wave of change, don’t fight it, don’t grasp at what can’t be grasped, trying to hold on to what won’t be held. Evolve. Live life based on love and compassion, not fears and desires and hidden agendas. We’ll come back to this.

When I was in medical school I had some appreciation of this essential role of change in Buddhist terms, but it would also turn out to be the first means by which science entered my life in a deep way. Despite my earlier harsh judgments about science and progress, I surprised myself by enjoying my pre-med and medical school science courses. I applied myself, worked hard, and graduated at the top of my medical school class. Nonetheless, I was goal oriented, learning what I was told was required to be good doctor; I didn’t give much thought to science beyond the curriculum until I had a conversation with my cousin.

Warren is my first cousin, but he is older than I am and I didn’t really get to know him until I was in medical school. Warren is a medical doctor who didn’t practice clinical medicine after a stint in the Navy, but instead got a PhD and went into research. He was on a research team whose senior members won a Nobel Prize for their research on viruses, genes and cancer in the 1970s. His passion is teaching; Warren has taught microbiology to medical students in San Francisco and around the country for over 40 years and has been given many awards and accolades as a teacher.

Warren told me that evolution was critical to understanding anything about modern biology, and so to understanding life. Of course I understood evolution was important with implications, for example, for such practical issues like antibiotic resistance or the development of the immune system. I hadn’t thought about it as deeply as Warren was inviting me to before. Warren was very patient with me and so he introduced me to a scientific view of the world.

I saw that evolution embraces a vision of change that is exquisitely fair and just. Evolution is fair because it is not something that judges at all. It is not about divine punishments for our sins or rewards for following a prescribed series of rituals, believing the right dogmas and thinking the right thoughts. Evolution is like the statue of justice with a blindfold. You can’t charm it, you can’t suck up to it, and you can’t bribe it or con it. Evolution is about what works, meaning in this context what makes more life. Change will happen, and when it does, and it works, that is what you get more of because that is what working means, surviving to have more babies. A bit of a tautology really, simple but effective.

Biologic evolution is not about creatures realizing some standard of perfection. It is not about nature striving to achieve the final perfect organism. It is a freeform dance, not a march toward some Platonic ideal, the perfect horse or the perfect beetle. It is life oozing and changing wherever it can, however it can, whenever it can.

It isn’t about us as humans, we are not the ultimate goal. Chimpanzees and bonobos are not small, powerful, dumb people. They are not losers who missed out in the race to be humans. From the biologic point of view we are being very arrogant when we think like that. Personally, in a world with no humans to destroy habitats or hunt apes down for meat, I think I’d rather be a bonobo. The females run their societies and they say hello with oral sex. That can’t be all bad.

Chimpanzees and bonobos are not our ancestors, but are our forest dwelling cousins. We all evolved from some ape that lived over 6 million years ago. A river separated chimp and bonobo ancestors almost two million years ago.  The genetics and fossils are compelling. But just look at chimps and Bonobos and you don’t even really need molecular biology or ancient stone fossilized skulls. It’s that obvious.


This image is from Huxley’s “Evidence of Man’s Place in Nature” (1863). It has often been changed to show the evolutionary  progression from sea creatures  to land  animals, then to us walking upright, but this original is about comparative anatomy. There weren’t  many fossils or any genomes (and no real idea about genetics at all, for that matter) to go by back then, but the brilliant Darwin and Huxley grasped the relationship between us and our closest  cousins, and the evolutionary implications of this relationship.

The slug on the lawn has also evolved for exactly as long as we have from the first living cell to the day we cross paths after a good rain. That slug is a distant cousin, and is clearly is a success story because there it is, slugging along living its slug life after 4 billion years of evolution. Slugs evolved into slugs long before we evolved into intellectual giants, and they may outlast us. Our big brains dedicated to the service of fear and greed may turn out to be a failed evolutionary experiment rather than the crown of creation!

There was even more to this biologic view of the world for me, above and beyond this value neutral, harsh but fair view of nature. Evolution explains so much about who and what we are in a way many of our religious traditions do not. Lets take sex as an example. Gonads and sexual desires are easy to explain from the point of view of evolution. They create diversity and keep life going. It isn’t a question of shame and blame, of a God who gives us raging hormones but judges and damns us for eternity if we use them in other than the acceptable fashion, that is, with no imagination and only to procreate. Sexuality is not intelligently designed to be a test of our will power, our ability to suppress desire, and success in life is not a matter of achieving some arbitrary state of purity. Sexuality is a question of what worked starting half a billion years ago to allow for a bit of variety in our offspring by mixing mom’s and dad’s genes and to drive us to make more of us, starting way back, before we were even fish.

It is up to us to deal with our sexuality in ways that don’t cause suffering for us as creatures that evolved for sophisticated social interactions and a need for loyalty in order to cooperate in raising our helpless slow growing offspring. It’s a tall order in and of itself, and remains one of our greatest challenges, but it isn’t about being judged by some external standard of good and bad.

There was also the sublime vision of all life as one life in the scientific view of evolution. As Darwin wrote at the end of “The Origin of Species”:

“…there is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or onto one; and that, whilst this planet has gone on cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

To say “we are all one” may be new-age spiritual, but it is also an unadulterated scientific fact. There are the vast and elegant webs within webs that we are embedded in, that we all share. The laws of physics, the state of the universe, the solar system, the earth and all life together create what we are as living breathing, eating and secreting, reproducing organisms. There is the complex ecology of the earth we depend on and the ecology inside our bodies; we have 10 times more bacterial cells than human cells in our bodies, and they are necessary for us to survive. We can’t live outside of these external and internal ecologies, these wheels within wheels.

But it is even much more fundamental than that. All life on Earth is truly one living organism. Every cell is the same cell. Savor that. Every cell that ever was or is now, is the same cell morphing over time. No creature, large or small, makes a single cell from scratch. Every cell came from another cell.

We are each of us derived from a single cell: our mother’s ovum. The ovum is a big juicy cell that is released from the ovary in the middle of the woman’s monthly cycle between menses, whose job is to be fertilized by sperm. When the ovum is fertilized it triggers a cascade of events. The ovum changes and, then starts dividing, and chemical signals released from the altered ovum and then from the daughter cells initiates the development of differences between those cells. If it didn’t we’d just be a ball of cells, and not a very big ball or one that would last very long. This ball of cells grabs onto the inner uterine wall, sucking life from the mother’s tissues. This cascade of signals and cellular interactions leads to other cascades, an exquisitely timed series that keeps going throughout life. We ARE our mother’s ovum writ large. This is not a metaphor. Sure dad sprinkled a bit of genetic diversity into the cell, but that wasn’t really necessary. We need that first cell; we can’t make ourselves without a starter, like sourdough bread. In fact, there are some animals that can easily do without dad. Mom’s ova just start dividing and presto: babies happen. Look it up if you want to impress your friends, it’s called parthenogenesis.

Just as every one of our cells came from our mother’s ovum, with its cell membranes and other cell parts making up our first cell, that ovum came from her mother’s ovum and cell membranes and other cell parts, on back, mother to mother, to before there were ova, to way before we slithered out of the sea. And even further back, to before there were mothers and daughters, to our single cell ancestors and then back again to the first cell or group of proto-cells, whatever we were in deep, deep times past. We’re talking 4 billion years past.  All creatures alive today are at the base of an inverted mountain whose peak is that first replicating, living cell, in total continuity, with no break in the lineage. It is the same cell membrane for four billion years, just expanded and replenished with new atoms. It is the same DNA, also constantly replenished, but with just a bit of variation here and there, a little wiggle in the genes. When the wiggle works to make the organism better able to survive and multiply, then it persists. This is evolution.

You are at the same time the tip of a mountain of all living things. All life throughout history led to you. You have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, sixteen great great-grandparents, on and on, a geometric progression going back through time to before there were parents and grandparents. Doing the math (trust me, or do it yourself: 2 to the power of how many generations you want to look back times the average time per generation) it doesn’t take long before you have more ancestors than people who ever lived. About a thousand years should do it. Of course, that is a bit misleading, as it assumes no duplications, cousins marrying cousins, or dead ends, so you may have to go back over a hundred thousand years to find a common ancestor if you are looking at a specific gene. But for the most part, you don’t have to go back very far at all. Each one of us is the great, great … great, great-grandchild of slaves and sovereigns, saints and sinners, sages and simpletons.

Even if you have to go back as far as one or two hundred thousand years to find a human ancestor that you share with every person alive today, that is not all that long ago in the history of life or by geologic standards of time. In fact, geologic time is the time frame of life. Life is geological. Not only because the drifting and shape-shifting continents and meteors colliding with earth change the environment, sometimes gradually and sometimes catastrophically fast, setting the scene for extinctions and subsequent spurts of evolution. And not only because the elements and the flows of fluids and gases we rely on in our bodies are all part of the geologic system, earth and atmosphere as Gaia, herself a living breathing, weeping, flowing, secreting, belching, entity. It is because we, and all living things, ARE the earth, little moving clumps of earth stuff, mini-mountains that wiggle and squirm and slither.  Spontaneous generation. Life came from non-life in the view of evolutionary science, chemistry and physics. There is no other valid scientific viewpoint.

Where can we draw an unimpeachable dividing line between life and non-life, between us and geology, geology and the universe?

We can define life as some subset of things in the universe.  We are fond of dividing, classifying and reifying, so that whatever we are thinking about is easier to grasp and fit into our limited notions of how it should and could be. Scientists who search for life on other planets have to have something to work with, so they think and write about how to define life. We can decide life is, say, those things that replicate. Are computer programs alive? What about a code that replicates itself, a computer virus or artificial computer life? Perhaps in a sense they are alive. What about defining life as things that have carbon based DNA? That leaves out the computer program, but why should we set that limit? Maybe there are such life forms on other planets or their moons that use different molecules. What if we invent robots that are carbon based, can make more of themselves, and even use DNA for information storage. In these days of nanotechnology and 3-D printers and the first glimmering of quantum computation, it isn’t totally out of the question that we could achieve this in the near future.

In fact scientists do have a hard time defining life, and there is no universally accepted definition. A recent book, “What is Life,” references 40 different definitions.  The author’s starting point is the observation that life emerges from non-life. That seems obvious, but it is a critical premise. How are we, how can we be, in any way separate, outside, different, from the universe itself?

Some religious idealists don’t like the idea of spontaneous generation because it seems to fly in the face of a unique creation of life by a God outside of creation. Spontaneous generation, as conceived of before Pasteur, proved it wrong, was exemplified by the “spontaneous” appearance of maggots on rotting meat. The maggots were really hatched from flies’ eggs that were too small to be seen on the meat. That wasn’t considered proven until Pasteur in the late 19th century performed an experiment in which glass flasks with long elegantly curved necks were filled with a nutrient broth and found to remain sterile even when the end of the elegantly curved flasks’ necks were open to the air. You can still see the flasks in Paris at the Pasteur Institute. We might think Pasteur was challenging the delusions of foolish superstitious people who believed in the supernatural emergence of flies on meat, but that wasn’t what he was up to at all. Some biologists at the time thought that may be how life and evolution works, with new primitive forms being generated again and again as earlier ones evolved and became more complex. Pasteur was a devout Catholic and was not fond of the idea of spontaneous generation that was taken to imply that God didn’t have an original active role in a one time only, biblically mandated unique creation.


“Emu Story in the Milky Way” by Gavan Urandali Flick of Kamilaroi (Australia) in which Emu becomes the Pleides (the seven sisters) and Bundar the kangaroo sings to the wind to create changes to the waters and the dingo becomes the star Orion, howling to create storms .

Yet certainly every scientist believes ultimately in spontaneous generation, that life, the first cells, came from atoms of minerals and water, found in the clay and metals on the early earth, in its oceans and in the gases of its atmosphere. What else could we be but the product of atoms that were formed when the universe cooled enough for subatomic particles to congeal into atoms almost 14 billion years ago, in addition to more complex atoms forged later in supernovae, the massive explosions of large dying stars? So while biologic time is geologic time, it is also cosmic time. And before 14 billion years ago, these subatomic particles came from the energy resulting from the birth of our universe that came from the infinite energy that …

And so where are we? What is this really all about? What is more fundamental even than energy?

I suggest we have come to the dreams stuff is made of, the source of phantoms, the fire that gives life to the equations, to what is not limited by “is” and “is not,” or to “changing” and “permanent.”  We come to Mind.

Photos courtesy of Susan Levinson