Ten years ago I visited a friend on Cape Cod and took my one-year-old daughter to the beach. She had never seen the ocean. We got out of the car about a hundred yards from the water. Holding her in one arm, I pointed to the ocean. My daughter’s eyes followed along my arm, across the sand, to the breaking waves, and then outward to the sea. Suddenly her face lit up, and she began giggling with delight. It seemed that there was nothing I needed to explain. Was she simply responding to the unexpected panorama? Or was this a renunion for her, a primal reconnection?
I thought of this visit when reading Timothy Ferris’s book The Mind’s Sky, for a central theme of his book is the quest to find unity in nature, a quest that begins with personal yearning. Throughout history, in every endeavor, human beings have searched for connections, for ways to make a harmonious whole out of parts. Laotze writes, “Through possession of the One, the Heaven was clarified/Through possession of the One, the Earth was stabilized.” Aristotle talks about unity of plot in his Poetics. Saint Thomas Aquinas says, “This world is called one by the unity of order.” Copernicus, after removing the Earth from the center of the universe, invokes cosmic harmony to explain why the sun should now occupy that privileged location: “Lastly, the sun will be regarded as occupying the center of the world [universe]. And the ratio of order with which these bodies succeed one another and the harmony of the whole world teaches us their truth.” Emerson writes, “So poor is nature with all her craft, that, from the beginning to the end of the universe, she has but one stuff—but one stuff with its two ends to serve up all her dream-like variety.” Harold Speed, the turn-of-the-century British academic painter and teacher, said: “Unity is concerned with the relationship of all the parts to that oneness of conception that should control every detail of a work of art. All the more profound qualities, the deeper emotional notes are on this side of the subject.” And the Holy Grail of modern physics is the Grand Unified Theory.
The quest for unity has taken on new poignancy in recent years, as the unstoppable sledgehammer of specialization pounds the world into smaller and smaller pieces and as humankind grows more estranged from nature. For example, the Gaia hypothesis, which proposes that the Earth is a single living organism, has attracted a devout following far beyond the scientific community. Introduced in its modern version in the 1970s by the British naturalist James Lovelock and the American biologist Lynn Margulis, and articulated more fully in Lovelock’s books Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (1979) and The Ages of Gaia (1988), the Gaia hypothesis claims that the earth’s atmosphere, oceans, climate, land, and living creatures are part of a giant feedback loop, which attempts to maintain conditions suitable for life. William McKibben’s recent book, The End of Nature (1990), suggests that man-made pollution has already so stretched and distorted the feedback loop that Earth may be doomed beyond recovery.
The Mind’s Sky is concerned with cosmic unity. Timothy Ferris, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley who specializes in writing about astronomy, argues that our true connectedness lies far beyond Earth, with the cosmos. Ferris envisions our relationship to the universe as hourglass shaped. On the bottom side is the inner realm of the mind; on the top is the outer realm of animals, stars, galaxies. Ferris leaves nothing out. The Mind’s Sky has chapters on brain studies (hence the “Mind” in the title), astronomy, physics, humor, sports, mysticism, the “near-death experience,” environmentalism, and information theory. These topics, some of which the author barely manages to rescue from the speculations of New Age thinking, are all loosely related to the mind’s search for unity and cosmic connection.
In a chapter entitled “The Interpreter,” concerned with the bottom half of the hourglass, Ferris discusses recent evidence that the human mind’s perception of itself as having unity of thought is actually an illusion. According to the American brain researcher Michael Gazzaniga and his colleagues, the brain has a multiplicity of functions and voices that speak independently. Ferris writes:
Freud, the Magellan of the subconscious, was the first to appreciate this. Whatever may have been the limitations of his analysis of the unconscious, Freud appreciated its vast extent and called attention to its veiled influences on the mind. These influences highlight the curious question of how and why, given that the brain is multipartite, it represents itself to the mind as unified. Were our conscious selves fully unified, we would feel justified in concluding that the brain for all the disparity of its parts is in truth a fully unified system. But we find, instead, that our sense of personal unity and command over the brain is something of an illusion, like the mechanical regent constructed by the Wizard of Oz to impress his subjects.
Ferris’s primary interest is in our connectedness to the cosmos, particularly with intelligent creatures elsewhere in the universe. This is the ultimate quest for unity, at least in the physical world. In the chapter “The Central Nervous System of the Milky Way Galaxy,” the centerpiece of his book, Ferris proposes a network of communication satellites spaced throughout our galaxy. Each satellite would have the capacity to store on computer the entire intellectual history and culture of many planetary civilizations. Each civilization, such as Earth’s, would convert its accumulated knowledge and wisdom into binary code and then beam those precious 1s and 0s to the nearest satellite for permanent storage. That satellite could relay the data to other satellites, as well as receive similar transmissions from them. At our end of the network, we might query a nearby satellite about the science and other accomplishments of creatures on planet Zork in the Pleiades star cluster; at their end, the Zorkians might ask about us, if they are interested. The satellites would have robotic functions, so that they could replicate themselves when some of their number are decimated by asteroids or simply wear out. Thus, the cosmic network would be immortal. Humankind might connect with other cosmic life forms long after we, or they, have perished.
Ferris’s proposal raises questions he does not address. If a galactic communication network is a good idea, then wouldn’t it have been previously conceived and put into operation by some of those super-smart extraterrestrials? If so, why haven’t our radio antennae picked up any transmissions? And granting that enough extraterrestrial civilizations exist to fill the galaxy with communication satellites—a gigantic assumption—how would the satellites, made from vastly different cultures and specifications, reconstruct themselves so that they could all work together? A network stretching across the galaxy would be 100,000 light years long, meaning that it would take 100,000 years for a senior satellite to send a simple “Testing, 1, 2, 3” to an adolescent satellite at the other end of the chain. Finally, to what extent can the culture of a civilization really be reduced to markings on magnetic tape?
Still, the idea excites the imagination, and it provides a new vision of unity and connection. Long after we human beings have specialized to the point where we cannot talk to each other, we might talk to other worlds. Or our surrogate satellites could.
Ferris writes with intelligence, imagination, and dramatic flair. His last book, Coming of Age in the Milky Way, was an excellent popular account of the history of astronomy and physics; an earlier book, Galaxies, presented gorgeous pictures of the universe accompanied by elegant descriptions. He has a particular gift for metaphor. In The Mind’s Sky, discussing how we inevitably limit things in trying to understand them, he writes:
Once the realist settles on a single representation of reality, the gate slams shut behind him, and he is doomed to live thereafter in the universe to which he has pledged allegiance. This universe may be elegant and adamantine as the Taj Mahal, but it is a prison nonetheless, and if the prisoner’s spirit is still awake it will beat its wings against the bars until it weakens and dies.
Yet, for a book on connectedness this reader found the separate chapters disjointed and contrived. For example, it is hard to understand what Ferris concludes from his account of the commonality of sensations in near-death experiences; the discussion of sports floats free from the rest of the book; we learn about information theory and entropy but not their relevance to the mind’s conception of itself or its connection to the cosmos. And the numerous references to cosmic perspective, sprinkled about the book, don’t seem to fit. In summary, although Ferris has something interesting to say in each chapter, he does not do himself a service by holding forth on so many subjects.
An implicit assumption in the quest for unity is that unity exists. In the world of art, this assumption may depend only on aesthetics, but in science, it would seem to take more concrete form. Thus, Ferris assumes, apparently on the basis of statistical probability, that extraterrestrial beings exist, and they desire to be part of a cosmic community; Lovelock assumes that a mechanism can be found that will reduce the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere when it is too high for bears or increase it when it is too low for trees; particle physicists assume a single force that produces electromagnetic forces, gravitational forces, nuclear forces. Nature may or may not accommodate these assumptions.
Paradoxically, as science digs deeper into nature, it uncovers alternating layers of unity and variety, simplicity and complexity. Copernicus’s sun-centered cosmos was simpler than Ptolemy’s earth-centered universe, but twentieth-century astronomers found that the sun is merely a resident in the suburbs of the Milky Way galaxy. The atom was once the indivisible unit of matter; then hundreds of subatomic particles such as neutrons and protons were found; then the genealogy of this multitude was simplified by tracing their lineage to three constituent particles called quarks; now the number of quarks has grown to six or more.
Does unity have a reality beyond its conception? Freud and Gazzaniga say that the mind must impose unity on the inner world of itself. Could the same be true of the outer world beyond the mind? Could the unity scientists seek exist mainly in their minds? Karl Pearson, the founder of twentieth-century statistics, wrote in his influential book The Grammar of Science (1892):
The unity of all science consists alone in its method, not its material….It is not the facts themselves which form science, but the method in which they are dealt with…. Order and reason, beauty and benevolence, are characteristics and conceptions which we find solely associated with the mind of man.
Pearson’s provocative statement connects with the opening sentence of a paper by Albert Einstein in the journal Science (1940): “Science is the attempt to make the chaotic diversity of our sense experience correspond to a logically uniform system of thought.” Henry Adams gave up all hope for unity at the turn of the century, when unsuspecting scientists first discovered that the sacred atom could disintegrate. As he remarks in The Education (1918):
In spite of all the Englishmen that ever lived, [the historian] would be forced to enter the supersensual chaos if he meant to find out what became of British science—or indeed of any other science. From Pythagoras to Herbert Spencer, every one had done it, although commonly science had explored an ocean which it preferred to regard as unity or a Universe, and called Order…. Suddenly, in 1900, science raised its head and denied…. The man of science must have been sleepy indeed who did not jump from his chair like a sacred dog when, in 1898, Mme. Curie threw on his desk the metaphysical bomb she called radium.
Twentieth-century science has exploded a metaphysical bomb far more powerful than radium, namely quantum physics. Quantum physics, developed in the 1920s and 1930s, has shown that the scientist is inextricably tangled up with the objects she observes. Before quantum physics, scientists assumed they could be passive observers of nature, without disturbing what they were looking at. Physicists believed they could time the period of a pendulum without changing its motion; chemists believed they could measure the rate at which coal burned in air without altering that rate; naturalists believed they could quietly listen to a sparrow without dictating its song. Scientists assumed they could put a box around their subject and peer into that box. Quantum physics has shown that scientists are always inside the box. The answers scientists get to their questions depend on the way they ask the questions. Thus, the enigma of whether unity exists outside the mind of the scientist dissolves in a mist of ambiguity and meaninglessness.
A baffling experiment in quantum physics, to which Ferris refers, demonstrates how “the observer” finds that he is not really an observer but part of the experiment. Called the double-slit experiment, it goes like this: A shade with two holes in it is placed between an object that spews out electrons, like a hot wire, and an electrons, detector, like a television screen. (Any subatomic particles can be substituted for electrons.) The wire emits electrons in all directions. Some of the electrons headed toward the television screen will be blocked by the shade; others will pass through one or the other of the two holes and reach the screen, their positions of arrival shown by the pattern of light on the screen.
Now, when the top hole in the shade is covered, a certain pattern of light is seen on the television screen, and when the bottom hole is covered another pattern is seen. We may interpret the first pattern of light as that produced by electrons traveling through the bottom hole, and the second pattern as that produced by electrons traveling through the top. When we uncover both holes, however, the pattern of light is not the sum of the first two patterns, but a completely different pattern. In fact, the new pattern is what we would expect if each electron could divide itself into many pieces and simultaneously pass through both holes. (Such a situation is similar to the overlap of two water waves and produces a distinctive pattern of reinforcement and cancellation at the screen.)
To test this possibility, an additional electron detector can be placed right behind each hole in the shade. The new detectors are transparent: they allow the electrons to continue their journey to the television screen but click if an electron passes through them. In this way, in addition to seeing where the electrons land on the television screen, we may tell for sure which opening each electron passes through. What we in fact find is that the two new detectors never click at the same time. One clicks, then the other clicks, but never two clicks together with the same electron. None of the electrons passes through both holes at once.
Furthermore, when the two new detectors are in place, the pattern of light on the television screen changes to the sum of the two one-hole patterns, as we would expect from a situation in which some electrons travel through the top hole and some through the bottom. To sum up, when we don’t measure which hole each electron goes through, each electron behaves as if it subdivides on the way to the shade and passes through both holes at once; when we do measure, each electron behaves as if it stayed whole and passed through only one opening.
How does each electron know in advance whether there are additional detectors behind the openings? How does each electron know whether to remain whole like a golf ball or to subdivide and spread like a ripple on a pond? Somehow, the nature of the electron depends on what we decide to measure. Somehow, the properties of the electron depend on the mind asking the questions.
The theory of quantum physics was worked out in the first three decades of the century by Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger, and Louis de Broglie, and that theory has been confirmed with great precision by many experiments, including the double-slit experiment. But no one understands the meaning of quantum physics. If quantum physics has not made the new man of science jump from his chair, it has certainly made him wonder what he was sitting on. Quantum physics does not quite require us to swallow Berkeley’s view that reality is only what can be tasted or felt. Surely, there are galaxies in space where our telescopes have not yet peered, just as electrons must hover somewhere even without our phosphorescent detectors. What quantum physics has taught us is that there is no clear line between observer and observed. We are connected to nature. We are part of a whole.
The physicist John Archibald Wheeler, now professor emeritus at Princeton and the greatest living expositor of quantum physics, calls the world as we now understand it a “participatory universe.” By this phrase, which Ferris refers to at the end of his book, Wheeler means that we shape the properties of the universe by our very observation of it. Not long ago, such a notion would have been dismissed out of hand by every bona fide scientist and many philosophers. Wheeler is saying, in effect, that we are not bystanders who probe electrons to see how they move, or who record the level of carbon dioxide in the air, or who build radio receivers to point up instead of sideways. We are part of it. Perhaps this is what my daughter felt when she giggled at the ocean.
February 13, 1992