October 22, 2022

1. Paired Particles

I tend to repeat my favorite ideas ad infinitum and ad nauseam. One of my favorite ideas is Paired Particles — two subatomic particles in close proximity that maintain a rapport even after they’re separated by thousands of miles. In other words, two particles that can influence each other instantly, even if they’re very far apart.

Paired Particles is a key idea in quantum physics, and I’ve argued that it reveals the deep connectedness of the universe. I regard this connectedness as the fundamental property of the universe. I’ve discussed Paired Particles so often that it must have worn grooves in the brains of those who read this e-zine (if any such there be).

So you can imagine my surprise when I read this in the New York Times:

The Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Alain Aspect, John F. Clauser and Anton Zeilinger.... The scientists have each conducted “groundbreaking experiments using entangled quantum states, where two particles behave like a single unit even when they are separated.”

The Nobel Committee didn’t mention the philosophical implications of quantum entanglement. Instead, they focused on the practical uses of Paired Particles — its significance for quantum computing, encryption, etc.1 The scientific community still avoids the philosophical implications of entanglement, and seems completely ignorant of the fact that research into psychic phenomena demonstrates entanglement just as clearly as quantum research.

2. Star Wars

Star Wars (1977) was the first movie in the series. Now, however, it’s called “Episode IV” since prequel movies were made. Star Wars was popular with both critics and the public.

It’s one of the most philosophical movies I’ve ever seen. It depicts the power of the unconscious, reminding me of how the Zen swordsman sets aside conscious thinking, and let’s his “deeper being” take over. It also depicts how the unconscious can perceive what’s happening elsewhere, through a mysterious psychic power. The old sage, Obi-Wan Kenobi, knows that the mind can bend circumstances, and says, “There’s no such thing as luck.”

Star Wars presents the deepest of all ideas — the existence of the invisible, the mysterious, the non-physical, which it refers to as The Force. Rational people will scoff at The Force, but can’t deny its similarity to the mysterious forces demonstrated by quantum physics. Many critics liked Star Wars, but didn’t appreciate its profundity. Gene Siskel, for example, called it “mindless entertainment,” a pinball game on the big screen.

But not everyone dismissed Star Wars as mindless entertainment. “Francis Ford Coppola suggested to George Lucas that they use their combined fortunes to start a religion based on The Force.” “In 2001... a number of people recorded their religion as ‘Jedi’ on national censuses.”

3. Miscellaneous

A. When a basketball player is at his best, we say “he’s unconscious.” Should we speak of scientists and artists being unconscious? The chemist Mendeleev said, “I saw in a dream a table where all elements fell into place as required. Awakening, I immediately wrote it down on a piece of paper, only in one place did a correction later seem necessary.” Mendeleev is credited with discovering the Periodic Table.

B. Fitzgerald, like other great writers, was fascinated by the intuitive, the unconscious, the non-rational. Here’s a passage from Fitzgerald’s short story about football (a story called “The Bowl”):

Princeton moved steadily down the field. On the Yale twenty-yard line things suddenly happened. A Princeton pass was intercepted; the Yale man, excited by his own opportunity, dropped the ball and it bobbed leisurely in the general direction of the Yale goal. Jack Devlin and Dolly Harlan of Princeton and somebody — I forget who — from Yale were all about the same distance from it. What Dolly did in that split second was all instinct; it presented no problem to him. He was a natural athlete and in a crisis his nervous system thought for him. He might have raced the two others for the ball; instead, he took out the Yale man with savage precision while Devlin scooped up the ball and ran ten yards for a touchdown.

Emerson spoke of, “that source, at once the essence of genius, of virtue, and of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct.” Emerson and Fitzgerald are both fascinated by “Spontaneity or Instinct.”

In a story called “A Short Trip Home,” Fitzgerald describes a young man (Eddie) on a train with a young woman (Ellen); Eddie and Ellen are in a private room; Eddie is trying to prevent a “tough guy” from being alone with Ellen. “Just at that moment I became aware, with the unquestionable knowledge reserved for facts, that he was just outside the door. She knew it, too; the blood left her face.” I’m reminded of a passage from Emerson: “Every man discriminates between the voluntary acts of his mind and his involuntary perceptions, and knows that to his involuntary perceptions a perfect faith is due.” Eddie has an “involuntary perception” of the presence of the “tough guy.”1B

Emerson and Fitzgerald are dealing with different things: Fitzgerald is dealing with the unseen presence of a person, Emerson with philosophical ideas. But intuition works in both cases. Eddie has an intuition that the tough guy is standing outside the door, Einstein has an intuition that e = mc2, Mendeleev sees in a dream the Periodic Table. As Emerson said, “When we discern truth, we do nothing of ourselves, but allow a passage to its beams.” Intuition works in everyday life, and in discovering new theories. Hence Emerson calls it, “the essence of genius, of virtue, and of life.”

C. America the Beautiful (2022) is a nature film that can be streamed on DisneyPlus. It’s about four hours long, and deals with various regions of the U.S. I recommend it — a nice blend of entertainment and science.

D. Hustle (2022) is a mediocre basketball movie. The first 90% is rather dull and predictable, but the ending is satisfying. Hustle is a celebration of the NBA, with brief appearances by many NBA players. The message of Hustle is, Never back down — a silly, crude message that would probably create more conflict in the world, if people took it to heart. Has our society discarded the code of the gentleman, and replaced it with the code of the brawler?

E. The BBC reports, “Researchers have grown brain cells in a lab that have learned to play the 1970s tennis-like video game, Pong.” Democrats argue that these blobs should be provided with mail-in ballots. “But can they fill out the ballots?” “No problem, we’ll help them, we do it all the time. You’re not one of those Republicans bent on undermining democracy, are you?”2

4. Fraxinus and Abies

Vergil writes,

Fraxinus in silvis pulcherrima, pinus in hortis,
populus in fluviis, abies in montibus altis
(Ash is very beautiful in woods, pine in gardens,
Poplar near rivers, fir on high mountains)

Vergil’s tree names are still used today; scientific names are taken from Latin. Linnaeus developed the system of scientific names, binomial names; he used Latin, a universal language, rather than his native Swedish. Today Vergil’s names aren’t used for a species, they’re used for a genus or family.

For Vergil, an ash was an ash — simple as that. But for today’s botanists, there are many different kinds of ash; Fraxinus is a genus with about fifty species. For Vergil, a beetle was a beetle, but we distinguish between 400,000 species of beetle. When Darwin was in South America, he caught 68 different species of beetle in a single day, and he said that the abundance of different species would “disturb the composure of an entomologist’s mind.” But Vergil’s mind was undisturbed; he only needed to learn one beetle, one ash, etc. Happy time! Blissful ignorance!3

Vergil writes of the trees that he sees in Italy. Now, however, trees from various regions of the world have been brought to Europe, multiplying the number of species. Foreign species were initially welcomed. A colorful flower from Australia, for example, would fetch a high price in England. Indeed, prices rose so high that plant-robbers would dig up rare plants at night.4

Species that we regard as common, such as Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum), were unknown in England, and when they turned color in the fall, it created a sensation, and everyone wanted to own them. It wasn’t until later that people realized how much damage could be done by foreign species, “invasive species.”

When Vergil mentions a tree species, we can infer it’s native to Europe. For example, he mentions elm (ulmus), so we know elm is native to Europe.

The flora of North America is often akin to that of East Asia, perhaps because there was once a land-bridge between North America and Asia, perhaps because the climate of those lands is similar.5 On the other hand, the flora of North America is rarely akin to that of South America, probably because North and South America were only connected recently (about 3 million years ago).

* * * * *

Potatoes and corn became important crops in Europe, after being brought from the New World. The English tried to grow tea in India, so they wouldn’t be reliant on Chinese tea, and the English tried to grow spices in India, so they wouldn’t be reliant on spices from Dutch-controlled Indonesia.6 Botany played an important role in commerce and empire-building, hence Andrea Wulf calls her book The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire, and the Birth of an Obsession.

Wulf describes how Captain Bligh sailed to Tahiti in the Bounty to gather breadfruit. It was believed that breadfruit could be grown in the Caribbean, and fed to slaves. Bligh had to give up the captain’s quarters, and sleep in a small room, so the breadfruit could have the best accommodations.

Bligh began by sailing toward Brazil, hoping to round Cape Horn, and reach Tahiti from the east. But he was repeatedly thrown back by the stormy seas at Cape Horn, so he gave up, and sailed east toward Africa, hoping to round the Cape of Good Hope, and reach Tahiti from the west. Bligh eventually made it to Tahiti, and stocked up on breadfruit, but later his crew mutinied, and set him adrift in a small boat.

After returning to England, Bligh was again sent to Tahiti for breadfruit. After stocking up again on Tahitian breadfruit, he delivered it to the Caribbean; he also collected many other plants from other places. (The breadfruit grew in the Caribbean, but the slaves wouldn’t eat it.) Bligh returned to England two years after leaving, bringing with him 703 pots of exotic plants, including mango trees and banana trees. “Dangling from the ceiling [of the ship] was a vast variety of orchids still attached to the branches of their host trees.”7 Bligh’s mission was finally accomplished.

* * * * *

Vergil knew the characteristics of different trees. For example, he knew that the beech (fagus) tends to extend its branches horizontally, so he speaks of a shepherd “reclining under the cover of a spreading beech” (patulae recubans sub tegmine fagi). He says that tilia (linden) is levis (light), so he recommends tilia for yokes. Linden is indeed light, and is often used for carving and sculpture. Vergil says the fir (abies) will witness marine misfortunes (casus abies visura marinos) since the fir was used in ship-building.

Ash (fraxinus) is tough and difficult to split, hence it’s used for baseball bats; the word “ash” is related to the word for spear, since early peoples used ash to make spears. When my neighbors saw me trying in vain to split ash logs, they loaned me their splitting-machine.

Vergil was born in a small town in northern Italy. He was born in 70 BC, seven years before Augustus. After Augustus and his fellow triumvirs defeated Caesar’s assassins, they wanted to pay their troops with land, so they confiscated land in and around Vergil’s hometown. Vergil apparently went to Rome to plead his case, and reclaim his family holdings. Vergil’s Ecologues speak of being chased off one’s property, and using connections in high places to regain it. Vergil was familiar with rural life from his own experience and from his reading.

I’m trying to read Vergil’s Georgics, but every line is a struggle. One commentator, Thomas Keightley, said that the “principal fault” of the Georgics is “the artificial character of the style,” the “contortions” of the language.8 One ancient critic poked fun at Vergil’s odd language: “cuium pecus, anne Latinum?” (whose flock, is it Latin?)

Keightley prefers the pastoral poetry of Theocritus to Vergil’s Eclogues; he speaks of, “the charming simplicity, the sweetness, the grace, the redolence of rural life and manners of the pastoral Idylls of Theocritus.” Likewise, Keightley prefers the poetry of Lucretius to Vergil’s Georgics; he says that Lucretius has “a natural vigor, a sweetness, and a sense for the picturesque, which Vergil did not possess.”

Keightley says that Vergil fell short of his models, i.e., fell short of Theocritus, Lucretius, and Homer. “The model-poet is the poet of nature, the imitator the poet of art and labor.” Keightley admits, though, that “in the Georgics... there is much to admire: the language, though wanting in simplicity, is uniformly elegant.” Keightley questions whether Vergil deserves his lofty reputation:

No poet [was] more fortunate than Vergil in the acquisition of fame; for from his own time, down almost to the present day, he has been generally placed in the very first rank of poets. Notwithstanding, we are not afraid to confess our belief that other Latin poets equaled him, and that Ovid surpassed him in true poetic genius. But he was fortunate in having had national subjects to work on, and thus to become at once the national poet.

* * * * *

Andrea Wulf’s Brother Gardeners is a charming and readable book. But Wulf tries too hard to entertain the reader, and make the cash-register ring. One wishes that the book had fewer anecdotes and more science — less sugar and more nutrition.

Wulf says that, in the early 1700s, botanists were beginning to understand that many plants reproduced sexually, with pollen going from the male stigma to the female pistil. Philip Miller, a leading English gardener, noted that insects played an important role in carrying pollen. Miller could explain why plants in hothouses often failed to reproduce: the hothouses lacked insects. Miller was in charge of the Chelsea Physic Garden, which is still operating. Miller wrote an influential Gardeners Dictionary (first edition 1731), which was translated into several European languages.

Wulf also discusses Thomas Fairchild, who used a feather to transmit pollen from one kind of flower to another, thus creating a hybrid known as “Fairchild’s Mule.” Fairchild was afraid that he had done something blasphemous, that he had “played God.” Wasn’t it God’s job to create species? “When asked to show his dried plant to the Royal Society in 1720, [Fairchild] fudged the story of its creation, claiming it was an accident.” In case God was angry with him, Fairchild tried to assuage His anger by bequeathing money for an annual sermon on “the wonderful works of God in the Creation”; the sermon is still delivered, “attended by the Worshipful Company of Gardeners.”

In 1735, Linnaeus published Systema Naturae, which set forth a new way of classifying and naming plants.9 Linnaeus looked at the reproductive organs, and grouped plants by their number of stamens and pistils, beginning with canna, which had one stamen and one pistil. (Should we compare this approach to chemists organizing elements by their number of protons/electrons? As canna has one stamen, so hydrogen has one proton.)

Flowering plants [Wulf writes] were divided into twenty-three classes according to the number of their male organs — the stamens, which [Linnaeus] called “husbands.” These classes were then further distinguished through the number of pistils at the center of the flower — the female organs, or “wives.” For those complaining that some flowers were too small for their organs to be seen, Linnaeus advised employing a magnifying glass, while at the same time using the occasion to brag that he didn’t need to because of his excellent eyesight.

In addition to these 23 classes, Linnaeus established a 24th class whose reproductive organs were invisible; he called this class Cryptogamia (hidden marriage). Into this class Linnaeus put mosses, ferns, fungi, and algae. These are sometimes called “spore plants,” as opposed to “seed plants.” Spore plants are generally older than seed plants, and are sometimes considered “lower” on the evolutionary scale.10 Below are Linnaeus’ 24 classes, according to the number of stamens:

Most English botanists initially refused to accept Linnaeus’ system. They had spent decades mastering older systems — more complicated systems based on multiple plant features. These botanists were like astronomers who had mastered Ptolemy’s complicated system, and saw no reason to discard it in favor of Copernicus’ system. American botanists, on the other hand, adopted Linnaeus’ system more quickly; they were less attached to the old systems, and needed an easy way of naming the new species they were finding. As a general rule, are Americans more ready for conceptual breakthroughs — less attached to established ideas?

Wulf says that botany was all the rage in the latter 1700s, and she says that the English have retained their passion for gardening to this day. Wulf says that, in the 1700s, owners of estates wanted to have a greenhouse (sometimes called a “hothouse”), so they could grow tropical plants like orange trees, raise plants from seed, etc. I recently visited the Codman House in Lincoln, Massachusetts; the House dates to 1735. I could see the remains of the old greenhouse, with its pipes for carrying hot air (or hot water). Were Americans as wild about plants as the British? This is the subject of Wulf’s next book, Founding Gardeners.

Two of the most eminent writers of the late 1700s, Rousseau and Goethe, caught the botany fever, praised Linnaeus to the skies, and wrote books about botany. Goethe had begun his literary career at age 24 with a short novel called The Sorrows of Young Werther, which deals with a young man’s unrequited love and suicide. Rousseau knew something about the tumults of passion, and thought that botany could calm the soul. Wulf writes,

One of the most popular books of the time was Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Letters on the Elements of Botany addressed to a Lady, which included a description of the therapeutic values of plants and nature. Rousseau also insisted that an interest in Linnaean botany and the study of nature “prevents the tumults of passion.”

Young people seem particularly susceptible to melancholy, to the “tumults of passion,” while older people seem more likely to take an interest in things outside themselves — plants, rocks, stars, etc. Should we say that youth is subjective, and age objective? Our society has high rates of depression and suicide. Is contact with nature an antidote to depression? Does some knowledge of botany, geology, etc. make it easier to connect with nature?

Dostoyevsky said, “Beauty will save world.” He was referring to the beauty of landscape painting, but actual landscapes may have this power, too. Landscape painting can help us to appreciate landscapes, help us to find beauty in nature.

* * * * *

The best botany app is Picture This. It can identify a tree from its bark or its leaves, and it tells you the common name and the scientific name; it works with flowers and shrubs as well as trees. Click here for a botany article from the New York Times. The article mentions an online class called “Introduction to Plant Science”; the class is offered by the New York Botanical Garden. If you prefer books to classes, you can get the textbook used in the class, Botany for Gardeners: An Introduction to the Science of Plants, by Brian Capon.

© L. James Hammond 2022
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1. David Kaiser wrote a short, lucid piece on the work of Aspect, Clauser, and Zeilinger.

Some scientists still refuse to accept the revolutionary implications of entanglement — still refuse to admit action-at-a-distance, and communication that’s faster than light. See, for example, this tweet by Sabine Hossenfelder. back

1B. We find a similar passage in a Fitzgerald story called “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz”: “About half-way to the steep summit the trees fell away.... Just before he reached this point he slowed down his pace, warned by an animal sense that there was life just ahead of him. Coming to a high boulder, he lifted his head gradually above its edge.... This is what he saw: Braddock Washington was standing there motionless, silhouetted against the gray sky without sound or sign of life.”

Fitzgerald’s interest in this sort of intuition or hunch could be the product of his own experience, or it could be the product of his reading; perhaps his experience and his reading reinforced each other. He may have found such passages in writers he admired, such as Compton Mackenzie and Joseph Conrad. back

2. I discussed mail-in ballots here and here. back
3. Some ancient writers distinguished between different kinds of oak, etc. Keightley says that Pliny “enumerates four or five kinds” of maple.

Vergil says that fir is on high mountains, but actually the distribution of fir depends on two factors: altitude and latitude. The further south you go, the higher you need to ascend to find fir. In northerly latitudes, fir can be found at sea level. In an earlier issue, I discussed the naturalist Charlton Ogburn, who drove up the Northeast coast, and wrote a book called The Winter Beach. “Spruces and Balsam Firs,” Ogburn writes, are found “above 1,000 feet in the Adirondacks, above 4,500 in the southern Appalachians and above 8,000 in the southern tableland of Mexico. In the other direction, the North Woods — or, as they are called in scientific literature, the Canadian Zone, the Boreal Woods, or the Taiga — come down to sea-level in Maine and in Vancouver.”(pp. 10, 11) back

4. Andrea Wulf says that, around 1760, “thieves emptied Collinson’s flowerbeds... for the third time in as many years.”(Brother Gardeners, Ch. 9) back
5. In an earlier issue, I quoted the geologist Charles Lyell on climate:
“There are insular climates where the seasons are nearly equalized, and excessive climates... where the temperature of winter and summer is strongly contrasted. The whole of Europe, compared with the eastern parts of America and Asia, has an insular climate. The northern part of China, and the Atlantic region of the United States, exhibit ‘excessive climates.’ We find at New York... the summer of Rome and the winter of Copenhagen.... At [Beijing] in China, where the mean temperature of the year is that of the coasts of Brittany, the scorching heats of summer are greater than at Cairo, and the winters as rigorous as at Uppsala.” back
6. The Brother Gardeners, by Andrea Wulf, Ch. 12 back
7. Brother Gardeners, Ch. 12 back
8. Keightley, Notes on the Bucolics and Georgics of Virgil, p. xxi back
9. Linnaeus also applied his system to animals and minerals. back
10. Seed plants can be divided into Gymnosperms and Angiosperms, with Gymnosperms being older or “lower.” The term Gymnosperm means “naked seed,” while Angiosperm means “covered seed.” Examples of Gymnosperms are conifers and ginkgos. Most flowers and deciduous trees are Angiosperms.

We find a similar distinction on a more rudimentary level of organism. Prokaryotes are organisms with a “naked nucleus,” while Eukaryotes are organisms whose nucleus is enclosed in a kind of envelope. So Prokaryotes are analogous to Gymnosperms, while Eukaryotes are analogous to Angiosperms. back