Month: April 2016

Where Minds Don’t Belong

Recognizable prototypes of popular science writing probably go back at least to Faraday’s Chemical History of a Candle lectures, and includes well-regarded writings by George Gamow and James Jeans in the ’30s, but the genre as we know it probably begins with the explosive popularity in the ’80s of such titles as Sagan’s Cosmos or Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. These were clearly written with a spirit of exposition first and foremost, aiming to make already well-established scientific concepts clearer to laymen. Notably, flights of imagination, while invaluable for catching the reader’s attention and making those concepts easier to digest, were clearly marked and placed in the service of the science being outlined.

But science writing isn’t what it used to be. No longer content to serve as a tool of explanation or introduction between professional science and the rest of society, one finds an increasing trend in such writings towards conflating pure fantasy or wildly unsupported theories on the one hand, with oddly sensationalized re-hash of facts (if not minutae) that have been written about elsewhere countless times, on the other.

In this fashionable hyper-speculative mode, empty and meaningless claims are dressed up as great revelations, demanding our awe (both to science and to the deep mind of the writer) as a kind of supreme tribute. At the same time, we are to constantly keep in mind that even though these revelations are incredible and really wondrous and merit our uncritical admiration, they are also perfectly predictable consequences of any sufficiently rigorous and hard-headed thought process, and in this way are inevitable and even mediocre. In this way, the writer maintains a nominal commitment to rationalism and scientific orthodoxy. We are constantly to be in awe, all while reminding ourselves that everything is quite sensible and certainly no cause for mystical invocations.

The result is a bizarre waffling between the poles of astonishment and smug domestication or, if these are taken all at once, a double-bind oddly reminiscent either of Orwell’s Doublethink or of certain religious tenets where the swallowing of a contradiction (such as “God is One but he is also Three”) is a necessary testament of one’s faith. This contrived emotional reaction, where the feelings of religious mystery or philosophical puzzlement are evoked in order to glorify the ostensibly rationalistic triumph of current scientific thinking, has come to dominate so many forms of popular science writing and exegesis.

I propose to call it “nihilistic awe”–for it is literally awe based on nothing, awe conjured up for the usefulness of that feeling alone. It is distinct from the awe one may feel at any great discovery about the world, or at the working-out of successful scientific theories, for while these types of experiences drive many scientists to pursue their field, they are based on honest approaches to objective truth and moreover, far from being created specifically for the occasion, are often quite accidental. Nihilistic awe, on the other hand, is distinguished by its two-fold nature: exaggerated or speculative claims on the one hand, with a distinct subtext that “thou shalt be amazed”, combined with an often ad-hoc rationalization that aims to place all such feelings under the firm control of conventional scientific concepts.

Put in the terms of Heidegger’s essay “The Thing”, in nihilistic awe we are first invited us to approach the “thing qua thing”–this is the awe part–but then shunts this awe into an act of objectification through abstract representation, by creating what Heidegger terms the “over-againstness” of the object. We are put in a mode of thought primed for appreciation of the universe or the creation or the radical strangeness of things in their existence, but this mode is then diverted, and subtly appropriated for the sake of a scientific triumphalism where “everything is present as an object of making” and “gets lumped together into uniform distancelessness”–a mindset whose first inception Heidegger interestingly identifies not in the scientific revolutions of the Enlightenment, but as far back as the works of Plato.

That these two attitudes are incompatible as oil and water, and that in particular the process of objectification and representation, obscures the appreciation of the thing-as-thing, shows the very emptiness of nihilistic awe: for even if the images, statements or stories initially used to conjure the awe of the reader are completely truthful and worthy of awe, the experience is immediately flattened by the following ad-hoc process of jamming it into alignment with scientific orthodoxy. As Heidegger puts it, “Science always encounters only what its kind of representation has admitted beforehand as an object possible for science”.

The move towards nihilistic awe in many forms of expository writing may have a number of causes. It might, for instance, be taken as simply a pedagogic conceit. In Thomas Kuhn’s view, textbooks of science often gloss over and even reverse the true historical development of scientific theories in the interest of telling a more coherent, triumphal story. This is no terrible wrong, Kuhn suggests, since for the promotion of science (as for any other great human endeavor) what is needed is not a dry story of bumbling errors and unpleasant characters who as often backed into a new model as derived it clear-sightedly, but a pantheon of heroes and startling breakthroughs that (insofar as scientists need to know about the history of science at all) is logical and easy to remember. The overriding goals are to inspire young people to throw their lots in with the scientific professions, and also to give cohesion to the narrative of Progress, with which scientists and science are so vitally associated.

Yet nihilistic awe hardly seems necessary for teaching new scientists how to do science, nor, given its extremely speculative and fact-sparse nature, is it particularly effective in doing so. In previous decades, when popular science writing was more constrained and straightforward in its intentions (whatever its other flaws), or when the writing of scientific books was a much more significant part of communication within the scientific community itself, the effect was just as rich if not more so: many of the discoveries of those times, let us say pre-1980s, were of a magnitude and breadth that has scarcely been equalled since, despite the exponential growth in the sciences in terms of funding, publication rate, and degrees conferred. If there has been any pedagogic effect, then, it has been to decrease the effectiveness of science.

Propagandistic motives surely also come into play in the rise of nihilistic awe. As the “culture wars” have continued throughout the US and across the world, there is an ongoing need for scientists and associated professions to rally around the idea of Progress–to uphold the “ideals of the Enlightenment” and so forth against a perceived reactionism in the general public, and lawmakers. At the root of this reaction, in addition to the old resistance by religious hard-liners, there now is a growing broader sense that science has let us down: for though we continue to see piecemeal improvements and interesting new entertainments and distractions, we are still quite clearly left with the old human problems of sickness, death, tribalism, inequality, and corruption, along with newer ones such as environmental degradation and social atomization. It is no longer even clear that science is “winning” the victories that were once expected of it, though those expectations were admittedly promoted more often by entrepreneurs and other power-brokers who stood to gain by them than by scientists themselves.

Certainly school board decisions concerning the teaching of intelligent design, or the vast and perhaps growing scientific illiteracy of the population, as well as the ever-growing recalcitrance of lawmakers towards increases in scientific funding, have put science on its guard as well, and no doubt adds to the pressure to “fight fire with fire” in the world of public opinion by reaching for the language of religiousity. But for centuries before our current time, there has been a battle between secular intellectualism and religious traditionalism, which did not inspire mainstream scientific writing to routinely adopt such bizarrely mystical trappings. Thus, propagandism can only be part of the issue in the rise of nihilistic awe.

There are also economic values to consider. Besides the importance securing public support for the funding of science, as just mentioned, it is certainly true that the size of the prize has grown, as more and more writers (increasingly, unsuccessful scientists) have cast their lots in with scientific writing and as the number of best-selling titles and authors has also increased. Yet, as I mentioned, there has also been a trend from the latter 20th century that newer discoveries in science seem to be less dramatic, less fundamental, than what came before, though they are lauded if anything more highly–the Nobel Prize awarded for “blue LEDs” a few years back, for example. Popular books abound on the “science” of the minutest subjects now, ranging from the history of distilled liquors to the history of the number zero to the umpteenth re-telling of the story of a single favorite chemical element.

Without a doubt, some of the innate appeal of these works can be found in the “snob value”, whereby bien pensant readers may discover new edifying proof of their intellectual cultivation. Still, the implicit egotistical or social status value of reading “smart” books must pale when faced with the glum trend towards ever-more-arcane minutiae and ever-dowdier re-hash. With the need to continue to compel readers and bring in sales, then, it is not surprising that sensationalism would take an ever firmer hold of the content of “scientific” books. But this need to maintain shock value is bound to run up against science’s emphasis on objectivity and unity of knowledge: the world is consistent and only is a certain way, and once that way is described to a certain degree of precision there is less and less thrill, especially for non-professionals, in adding in more and more recondite details. In short, the truth grows so specialized that it sticks in the craw of even the most brazenly sensationalist writer, and sensationalism alone ceases to do the job.

Something beyond this is needed, then, if only to keep the royalties flowing. The language of awe, cosmic purposes, ultimate ends, and supreme Answers is just the thing, as it concerns itself not merely with interesting (if exaggerated) objects that stand over and against us as mere ideas, but the encounter with things qua things; it is precisely what modern man, in his secular, technocratic and bureaucratic detachment, quietly pines for and obsesses over. A sighting of a new particle, or an anomaly in the distribution of space dust, or speculations on the evolution of language (or any other human activity imaginable), can now not only be expressed in overblown terms, but with ecstatic and revelatory airs that attack the pleasure centers of belief. Of course it then becomes necessary to preserve the nominal connection with “science”, to weld this form of liberation to the old yoke–to confine the effect to that which science “has admitted beforehand as an object possible for science”. The fire of the ecstatic, once conjured up, must be frozen solid.

But while nihilistic awe may be worthwhile from an economic point of view as a sop for the confused souls, abundant in our time, who both wholly accept science as a salvation yet bemoan the emptiness its manner of thought creates (without connecting the two), there is surely more to the phenomenon than that. It’s hard to believe that every editorial decision made by even the most shameless popular science author is wholly due to such cool calculation. In fact many of them must be true believers, who honestly derive from their own experiences with science that very awe they wish to convey–yet they will then be driven by their prior ideological commitments to rationalize that emotion, to fit it within the framework of theory and idea.

At what point does this attitude become scientism, which may be described best as “religiosity by other means”? Different authors negotiate the territory differently, but there are abundant examples that the line is now routinely crossed. Sagan already trod perilously close–while the “New Atheists”, with their fervid rejection of traditional religion and equally fervid embrace of standard scientific materialism, show a willfully dogmatic, if not religious bent. Popularizer-scientists such as Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michio Kaku, Ray Kurzweil, and Brian Greene offer at turns rapturous tales of a destiny in space, spectacular phase-changes in consciousness through technology, limitless wonders and magic through soon-to-appear innovations, or a realm beyond all perception (or experimental detection) in which higher dimensions and vibrating strings act out inexplicable yet “beautiful” eternal principles.

The list seems endless. For a creation myth, one turn to such titles as Krauss’s “A Universe From Nothing” (while ignoring the glaring philosophical gaps pointed out in this review). For those who seek the classic religious refuge of alternate planes of existence, at once rarified and distant yet subtly near–all with the sanction of science–a simple Amazon search for “multiverse” provides a rich display of examples, including such recent delicacies as Christophe Galfard’s “The Universe in Your Hand”, which culminates in what one reader described as “some sort of rather incomprehensible voyage with a robot to the string theory multiverse”, and Greene’s “The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos”. All the trappings of “religiosity by other means” are available, in other words, except that in the end they must be welded uncomfortably to assertions that they are all somehow “true” or at least fit within the bounds of scientific objectivity.

* * *

A prime example of the merchants of nihilistic awe is Caleb Scharf, director of the Astrobiology Center at Columbia and self-described “science evangelist“, whose popular book “Copernicus Complex” I cracked open several months ago. Aside from the first half or so, which at least contains some passable expository writing, on the history and science of astronomy and astrobiology–albeit mostly in the typical mode of re-hash previously mentioned–”The Copernicus Complex” fits the bread-and-butter pattern of conjuring nihilistic awe through and through. Much in the same way that the book’s eponymous “complex” is never actually defined or described anywhere, the book is studded with bizarrely inconclusive or vacuous statements dressed up as cosmic truths or finely wrought aphorisms, regularly conjuring questions about humanity’s “significance” without addressing in any way what significance is. We come again and again upon pseudo-deep questions such as, “do we want to remain special but insignificant?” [230].

But in the usual pattern, Scharf’s oddly floating exhortations to wonder are immediately defused with sometimes breathtakingly hubristic yet unsupported assertions of rational certitude, like when he declares “…the mechanics of life are an unsurprising extension of what we know about the universe” [217] The source of Scharf’s awe, it seems, is to be that there is nothing to be awed about. Nothing to see here, but thanks for your amazement; triumphalism is wrung from inconclusiveness.

Scharf’s recent article for Aeon, “Where Do Minds Belong?” is much the same in many ways, however it provides a much more compact and clear exemplar of the tools of nihilistic awe at work (and Aeon itself has largely given itself completely to this mode of writing). It demonstrates some of the worst of the worst, pointing a truly dubious way forward for scientific writing and thought. Much of it is spent arguing imaginary points in the name of an imaginary consensus, while at the same time taking pride in an alleged nonconformism.

“Where Do Minds Belong?” is based on twin unfounded speculations: first, that over time, consciousness will first transfer itself into computers; second, that for some reason or other, machine consciousness will later decide to return to biological form. Note that there is already an inconsistency underlying this premise: for is it not the standard position of Singularitarians and other arch-reductionists that biological organisms are already nothing other than machines? If so, then by embracing the dichotomy between the two as the basis of his discourse, Scharf seems to be implying that biological organisms are essentially not machines. Yet if they are not–if there is something about them that we cannot reduce to calculation and mechanism–then how can we expect them to be replaced by machines? The whole discussion turns out to be self-refuting–an excellent example of the fashionable, say-nothing grandiosity of popular scientism.

Early in the essay, Scharf contends that

“any intelligent life we encounter in the rest of the Universe is more likely to be machine-based, rather than humanoid meat-bags such as ourselves.

This statement is certainly awe-evoking; yet like much of what is to follow, it has no basis in any observation or any reputable argument. It does, however, immediately put the awe in subordination to mechanism, with its implicit assertion that, far from life as we know it being singular or inexplicable, it is in fact just a less-convenient way for life to exist, as compared to purely mechanical forms.

Of note here is the doctrine of the biological inferiority complex, as embodied by the Singularitarians and many other current writers and futurists who posit machine incarnation as the manifest destiny of humanity. In this vein, describing people as “meat-bags” or “moist robots” is a particularly fashionable type of locution, meant to display the speaker’s confident faith in reductionist materialism–and hence their intellectual seriousness–through their eagerness to dismiss conscious beings as automata or mere gatherings of organs. It is “over-againstness” writ large, and now the objectification is directed not just at the world but at ourselves.

To a normal individual, this will surely seem wanton, arrogant, and disturbingbut it is all in the manner of a compliment in the minds of our astute Aeon readers. Continuing in the biological inferiority complex, Scharf then supplies more than was asked for:

Our notions about the emergence of intelligent machines expose our fantasies (often unspoken) about what perfection is: not soft and biological, like our current selves, but hard, digital and almost inconceivably powerful.

Who is he arguing against here? Whose fantasies are these? What is this consensus he is claiming where in fact there is none? What is the criterion of superiority he is invoking? (Many of us, I suspect, vastly prefer people “soft and biological”.)

As if to underline his thin grasp of the line between real knowledge and euphoric speculation, Scharf next declares the reasoning on machine intelligence virtually settled, then immediately makes a hugely idiotic leap, common in contemporary predictions of an AI takeover, of reasoning by extrapolating the present indefinitely far into the future.

“…the logic behind the conjectures about cosmic machine intelligence appears pretty solid. Extrapolating the trajectory of our own current technological evolution…

This sets him up to formulate a grandiose question (another favored tactic for awe-mining):

is biological intelligence really a universal dead-end, destined to give way to machine supremacy?

It is hard to imagine a more utterly loaded question to begin with. Who’s really assuming all this, or seriously worrying about it, besides a handful of highly eccentric technocratic would-be visionaries? Note also how the nihilism hits home in this image: we are all doomed, our selves as we know them are nothing, we are a road-block on the way to progress, etc., etc., and Science has decreed it to be so. However, Scharf’s answer is “perhaps not”:

It is far from clear that current computational technology is leading us to the singularity, or any grandiose moment of exponential transcendence as a species.

His manner of consolation leaves much to be desired however:

we could be heading for a hive-mind state, a collective organism more akin to a termite colony or a set of squirmy naked mole-rats. Rather than increasing our intelligence, we might actually be throttling the raw inputs, training ourselves to be increasingly passive.

Here we have more fun speculation, with no evidence or argument, but tenaciously holding to the image of man-as-object, completely commensurable with termites or mole-rats.

There are also some simple falsehoods:

the computations-per-joule ratio has been getting better and better with each passing year.

This is untrue, as Dennard scaling–the decrease in power consumption by chip features in proportion to the decreasing area of those features–broke down around 2006. Scharf later admits this:

some researchers have stated that there might be an upcoming ‘wall’ of energy efficiency for conventional processing architectures, somewhere around 10 giga-computations-per-joule for operations such as basic multiplication.

That’s a big potential roadblock for any quest for true artificial intelligence or brain-uploading machinery.

Here he is being humbler, standing against the techno-Rapturists, though still wearing their colors.

The astonishing efficiency of the human brain (20W to run the whole thing) gets a strong nod from Scharf, and he rightly notes that this is strong evidence that re-creating minds on silicon would be prohibitively energy intensive.

I think that there is cause for a more measured response to the optimistic predictions of human-level AI. […] although the machinery to sustain intelligence comparable to, or exceeding, human intelligence might be possible to construct, it might not enable the kind of exponential computing growth that is often proposed.

He follows this sensible observation with something that makes no sense:

the mathematics of exponentially improving machine intelligence could be sound, and yet the practical barriers could prove insurmountably steep.

This seems to come down to the reasonable but also vacuous observation that though sustained exponential improvement may be imaginable, that does not mean it is possible. The idea of exponential growth indeed dies hard, even among those trying ostensibly to step out of it: though the concept of technological and biospheric limits has made it impossible to ignore its demise outright, we must keep it alive in some platonic universe somewhere.

Pressing forward into his fantasy world, Scharf goes on to his second massive unfounded speculation: that consciousness would not solely prefer machine incarnations (however those are defined), but would return to biological form every now and then, as it were for titillation, or for practical reasons.

there could be a more optimal trajectory that leads away from machines and back to biology, with its remarkable energy efficiency.

So, if we do come up with machines that think, those machines will eventually evolve back into biological organisms to save on their energy bills. Will they invent gossip magazines to escape the boredom of rigid computational honesty too, one wonders? Perhaps they will inevitably come to worship a Messiah through Whom they can attain the blessedness of biological existence? One can make this stuff up all day–and places like Aeon will publish it and pave your way to a book deal.

Scharf also keeps returning to the Fermi Paradox as a cross-beam in his line of thought (such as it is), failing to notice that the Fermi Paradox is really a very narrow observation with a wildly ramifying tree of possible explanations. Yes, we are the only life we observe, but we have simply zero data to support any explanation why that is so. Therefore the Paradox is often used by the charlatans and sensationalists of popular scientism to throw up a fog of Cosmic Wonderment, inside of which to carry out their tricks. But the fact remains that it tells us nothing, supports no arguments, except of course the vaguely awe-inducing feeling that “we’re not sure what’s going on”. Here is an example of this improper front-loading of the Paradox:

the Fermi Paradox returns: where are those aliens now? A simple answer is that they might be fenced in by the extreme difficulty of interstellar transit, especially for physical, biological beings. Perhaps the old minds are out there, but the cost of returning to biology was a return to isolation.

Those early minds might have once built mega-structures and deployed cosmic engineering across the stars. Maybe some of that stuff is still out there, and perhaps we’re on the cusp of detecting some of it with our ever-improving astronomical devices.

Perhaps alien civilisations have retreated to a cloistered biological existence, with relics of their mechanical-era constructions crumbling under the rigours of cosmic radiation, evaporation, and explosive stellar filth.

Doesn’t that just give you chills? Of course, there’s no reason for believing any of it. Scharf’s purpose, once again, is to edify and thrill, without actually enlightening. Carl Sagan, while at work on “Contact”, at least knew he was writing fiction.

Scharf leaves us with this weakly apologetic coda:

“There is no shame in admitting the highly speculative nature of these ideas, and there is something special about the questions that prompt them. We’re examining possible futures for ourselves. It is conceivable that the Universe is already telling us what those options really are. Such acts of self-examination are unlike any other human endeavour, and that alone is worth paying attention to.”

So, in summary, we are to be forever enthralled by possibilities of possibilities of possibilities that have no basis in scientific observation, because the questions that prompt them are somehow “special”. Leaving aside the absurdity and vagueness of the questions themselves, Scharf cannot say what their specialness might consist in, because he is committed to negating it in the same stroke with objectifying hand-waves to prove his alignment with the scientific mindset. Energy considerations aside, one cannot help wondering whether minds might feel the need to escape human bodies and transfer themselves into machine-brains on a distant planet purely to avoid having to read articles like this.

* * *

All in all, despite his slight deviations from the narrative of breakneck technological progress (AI may be a little slower in coming, or a little hard to do), nihilistic-awe writings such as Scharf’s are closely related to the modality of discourse that science journalist-cum-philosopher of science John Horgan, in his 1996 book “The End of Science”, presciently descried and pithily termed “ironic science”. In his words, ironic science is “science that is not experimentally testable or resolvable even in principle and therefore is not science in the strict sense at all”; its function, rather than being explanatory, is “to keep us awestruck before the mystery of the cosmos” [94]. Unlike “science in the strict sense”, ironic science “cannot achieve empirically verifiable surprises that force scientists to make substantial revisions in their basic description of reality” [7].

The spread of ironic science would be less alarming if it were the case that “real scientists” neither read nor really believe any of these kinds of writings–that, if they are propaganda or even something worse, they are propaganda directed exclusively to the consumption of non-scientists and so amount to little more than fabulous story-telling, speculative science-fiction with a veneer of genuine scientific findings. Yet partly as a consequence of the ever-ramifying specialization and isolation of scientists’ work, many do in fact fall back upon such propaganda in order to keep abreast of other fields. Many scientists not only read such works on a regular basis, but increasingly are the sources of them–as Horgan’s book chronicles, often humorously.

This suggests either that the problem is not just one of crass manipulation for the sake of book deals and speaking engagements but of true belief; that the scientists themselves increasingly embrace nihilistic awe. Horgan’s discovery of the mode of “ironic science” is crucial to this point, for it reveals that in our time scientists themselves are increasingly prone to a double withdrawal: not only from the world of things qua things for the sake of “beautiful” ideas, but from empirical-objective reality of practical application and experimental verification as well. Both facts and things are being lost to a Platonic world of “ideas” that is grounded by no discipline, has no appreciation of anything outside its own accepted forms of calculation and reduction, and yet is now being driven by a vague roving religious need to be “awestruck before the mystery of the cosmos”.

The phenomenon of nihilistic awe and other such things in our time is representative of a need for substitutes for failed religion–an ersatz that will titillate us with the goosebumps-feeling of the unknown and the sublime while reassuring us that there’s nothing to see here and that everything is quite comprehensible. I have said that this constitutes a double-bind, but it is not clear to me yet whether this is a double-bind of the Zen koan or the Kuhnian crisis sort–a consternation that will break forth into new understanding–or of the Orwellian sort, whereby minds are destroyed by being forced to entertain contradictory ideas and inherently misdirecting categories.

Aside from Horgan’s already twenty-year-old observations about the quiet rise of ironic science as a kind of phony substitute for the epic novelties and discoveries of old to which we have become accustomed–if not addicted–and aside from the general public disillusionment at the many unfulfilled promises of scientific progress, there are growing indications even in elite corners that neither nihilistic awe nor scientism can provide the spiritual or emotional sustenance that they aim at. When even science-and-technology rags like Wired begin to grow queasy at the ongoing attempts by popularizers such as Neil deGrasse Tyson to evoke our awe and then bottle it in formaldehyde for the glory of science–tellingly noting that “the subject-matter is cosmic and transcendental, the object-cause is petty and stupid”–or similarly, when news sites with names like ExtremeTech begin to roll their eyes when old ironic-scientific saws about whether our universe is “actually” a simulation get trotted for the umpteenth time, then one must believe that the game is gradually entering a different phase.

But although the absurdity and hollowness of nihilistic awe and its associated writings and personalities may be growing obvious even to the dedicated admirers of science and technology, we are still left with the question of what to replace it with–what to do with the “god-shaped hole”, as Salman Rushdie once described it, left by modern disenchantment not only with traditional religion, but now increasingly with science as well. What finally, is the remedy to this twisted and disingenuous form of exposition, this bankruptness of belief and thought that clothes itself in the names of awe and reverence? The search for this remedy has been the central preoccupation of many great thinkers in the techno-scientific age, from Nietzsche to Heidegger to Nishitani.

I would propose that one solution has been known for millennia, and has only rather recently been abandoned–if not left for dead–in the past several decades in technological cultures. It is not a question of a better set of religious tenets, though it may inspire such. It is also not a question of creating a kinder, more satisfying, or even more accurate kind of science. It is, rather, a sensibility, and a means of expression, that has proven fit to encompassing the most awesome discoveries and the most heart-rending myths. That sensibility is, quite simply, poetry, the poetic.

There is certainly not space here to explore in any serious way the full meaning and importance of the poetic as it relates to human society and daily life. Still, it is worth pointing out that the power of the poetic has been banished to an exceedingly narrow idea in our times, insofar as it is an idea at all: it is a literal view, where poems exist exclusively as discrete verbal constructions, in turn produced by a mixture of pretentious slam-artists, hypersensitive recluses, dry academics, and other esoteric or generally negatively-connoted persons. The poetic is mistrusted or discounted as fanciful, indulgent, misleading, or weakling, especially alongside the unquestioned virtues of innovation, expansion, acceleration, and toil.

This is a great loss, for poetry serves a purpose far beyond any of these spitefully narrow constructs; in short, is the natural language of myth and revelation–of precisely the things that nihilistic awe attempts vainly and disingenuously to fill. In the recent movie “the Big Short”, whose subject of the desperate pursuit of hollow assets unto the point of ruin parallels in the valuative sphere the movement of nihilistic awe in the spiritual sphere, there is a quote flashed on the screen that encapsulates the attitude we now inhabit: “Truth is like poetry. And most people fucking hate poetry.” This is the torment we face–we turn to one substitute, one ersatz after another, knowing that something is missing, but still find ourselves filled with an antipathy or contempt towards the very thing that might truly fulfill us. We have lost, for the time being, the ability to connect with this world.

Nietzsche, in “The Birth of Tragedy”, observes that “the first thing the youthful tragedian Plato did was to burn his poetry so that he could become a pupil of Socrates” [68]. The Socratic mentality pervades our culture now, Nietzsche contends, and forms the core of the scientific and “optimistic” worldview that pervades it. Just as following it induced Plato to destroy his own work, this worldview is intrinsically destructive to the poetic: “Anyone who recalls the immediate effects produced by this restlessly advancing spirit of science will recognize at once how myth was destroyed by it, and how this destruction drove poetry from its natural, ideal soil, so that it became homeless from that point onwards.”[82]

Heidegger, in his essay “The Question Concerning Technology”, holds up the poet Hölderlin’s phrase, “poetically dwells man upon this earth”, as a possible antithesis to the growing emptiness and narrowness of technological (and scientific) thinking. Elsewhere, in his “Letter on Humanism”, he notes that “the world’s destiny is heralded in poetry”. This gives hope that the re-awakening of the poetic indeed holds the power to rescue us, but it also gives us reason to fear for the world’s destiny if the fall of poetic understanding, and its usurpation by nihilistic awe, is not somehow reversed.

Yet, despite its unappealing and ill-fitting aspects, it is possible to look at nihilistic awe not as part of the unraveling of science, nor as a purely money-making or social conceit, nor even as the objectifying of psychic phenomena that ought to be treated as much more than objects–but as a thus-far largely unconscious thrust to break free of just such objectification. Our misapprehension of and even resentment of the poetic has led us ever deeper into the whirlpool of objectification, and also reduced our understanding of how to get back out of that whirlpool. And yet, as symbolic objectification has reached extremes–as in ironic science, in the self-abnegating mechanization of life, in the fashionability of the “biological inferiority complex”, and in the reduction of all things to computation–it has increasingly shown signs of breaking apart under its own inner tensions. It may be that the awe within nihilistic awe itself is the source of this tension–that it longs to break free of its Platonic minders, to move past the dualism between understanding and understood, and to ascend back into the hall of things-as-things and of living myth.

In the same quote of Hölderlin, there is an allusion to a “saving power” that arises as the spiritual danger of technology becomes too overpowering. If nihilistic awe turns out to be more about awe than nihilism–as may be evident in the ever-thinner empirical pretexts employed in such work–it may, counterintuitively, be the first cryptic manifestation of this saving power. Guided by that power, these once-tawdry snippets of scientism could birth not mere sensationalism but fully-fledged mythopoetic visions, capable of filling the angry psychic vacancies left by a world turned over-and-against us by relentless abstraction and objectification. This is a question of great importance for the future of technological civilization, but it will not be possible to resolve it until, first, we are able to leave off fooling ourselves about what we want, and where we are at home.

Decoupling From Reality

I recently learned that a fellow I know, whom you might describe as wholly well-meaning but who also never met a form of consumption-as-activism he didn’t like, has jumped aboard the electric car wave and reserved for himself a Model 3–Tesla’s first attempt at an affordable (starting at $35,000) mass-market vehicle.

I had heard previously about the 3, as it is the next phase in Elon Musk’s grand strategy to free the world of petroleum-fueled means of transportation. If you don’t know about the enormous buzz and glitz surrounding Tesla’s every exploit (and to a lesser extent, misstep), you either have the unusual blessing of being immune to press releases of every kind, or, like most people in this country, you live in a world far removed from that in which even a $35,000 car would be called “affordable”.

Until I learned of my friend’s daring move, though, I’d thought the debut of the 3 was a very long way off, mainly due to the difficulties of cutting the costs of the car’s still-enormous battery–which makes up a large part of the sticker price for previous models such as the S. I was partly right; the first consumer-ready versions of the car will not ship out until the end of 2017–and possibly much later, if Tesla’s history of delays holds true.

But, ever-aware of the importance of good press–which becomes all the more pressing for a company that since going public has struggled with soaring losses and, despite its vanguard image, actually lags behind many competitors technologically–Tesla’s unveiling went ahead with full splendor. Alas, being at least partly immune to press releases myself, I had missed the opportunity to experience this supreme happening live (over the internet), as I only came upon the video a few days ago.

Let me sum it up. Musk, in a combination of rock-star mode and tasteful humility, strides onto the stage and suggests to us how Tesla is actually founded and run to address the great moral imperative of stopping climate change. He outlines how this imperative required beginning with an expensive, low-volume car, in order to be able to ramp up eventually to a less-expensive, high-volume car, which then would–through sheer coolness, as it were–be set to tame the recordshattering heating of the planet, by putting a serious dent in transportation emissions. That high-volume car, if all goes well, is none other than the Model 3.

This is all to the good, and there are shouts from the crowd: we love you, Elon. Despite the sternly scientific-technological topic, there is a crazed messianic tone in this space, a strange thronging for salvation on the part of the (I assume meticulously selected) crowd, that is even obvious to me, watching through a small computer window, at a large remove in space and time. Then, without further ado, amid an equally religious awed stillness out rolls the messianic car–and a very pretty car it is. Three of them, in fact.

The future is here–well not quite yet; it’s two years off, remember. But there is already a staggering backlog of people, like my friend, who are eager to buy into that future–180,000 of them in just 24 hours after the unveiling. And now that the 3 has a definite shape, a specific form on which to hang one’s fantasies, it’s fair to expect that that backlog will only grow.

Tesla (and Musk) are definitely a phenomenon, no matter what world you live in. There’s also no doubt Musk’s plan shows a combination of unusual daring, brilliant product placement, and strategic acumen. The cars, as I said, are very pretty, and so far get overwhelmingly rave reviews.

So much for the aesthetics, performance, coolness factor, and general chutzpah. But despite the grand terms in which Musk speaks, these things do not a big picture make–and so far as I can see of that, I’m not hugely impressed.

For one thing, there is the obvious fact, only now coming to be acknowledged, that upon switching to an electric car the former gasoline vehicle’s carbon emissions are not eliminated but merely transferred to a faraway power plant, which then makes the true carbon footprint a matter of what energy mix your corner of the world depends on for electricity. In upstate New York, where most electricity comes from carbon-free hydropower, an electric car creates emissions equivalent to a 135 mpg gasoline car. But in West Virginia, Colorado, or Ohio, where coal is the main part of the mix, that equivalent drops to around 40 mpg–about the same as many gasoline cars being sold now.

For another thing, making electric cars involves every bit as much of an ugly industrial manufacturing process, with its attendant huge energy demands, as does making gasoline cars. In fact, for an electric car, this process is actually dirtier and more energy-intensive than for a comparable gasoline car–up to 9 tons more CO2 per car manufactured, if Lomborg is to be believed. But again, this somehow need not concern us. Shut up, buy the car, keep on driving just like you did before, and be proud you’re an environmentalist.

On the other hand, I was very surprised to find that suddenly powering a huge proportion of our cars through the electrical grid would not require building tons of new power plants. In a recent report, a consortium of electric utilities reported they have enough baseload to power even 75% of the nation’s auto fleet electrically without building more capacity, due mainly to the much higher efficiency of electric vs. ICEs, and to the likelihood they would be charged at night, when electrical demand is very low anyway. (Even if these numbers are solid, I am skeptical of how this would play out in real life, and as soon as you get into constructing more large power plants that itself involves a large CO2 release.)

So, supposing tomorrow we switch all the cars magically to electric, we probably only cut our total vehicle-related emissions (both manufacturing and driving them) by 25% or something. Better than nothing–but the messianic feeling of saving the world with Technology isn’t quite what it was.

I suspect that, insofar as they are currently promoted as a carbon-reducing strategy on the huge scale we actually need to make a difference in our predicament, electric cars remain largely a delusion. Far more than materially improving environmental problems, they serve as a strategy for converting the environmental angst of fair-weather-green professional classes into hard cash-flow, or at least exploding share prices.

Psychologically, the rapture over electric cars strikes me as mostly a form of bargaining, a way to pretend that our accustomed luxuries can be continued indefinitely without change, sacrifice, or consequence. Much though fans of Musk may overtly despise Dick Cheney or George Bush, they are nonetheless implicitly very much in the same corner when it comes to the belief that “the American way of life is not negotiable”.

The problem I have with these kinds of efforts, in sum, is not the goal to eliminate fossil fuel use–nothing could be better for the world–but that no one is able or willing to take seriously the notion that such things as drastically cutting the CO2 emissions of a still-overwhelmingly (almost 80%) carbon-powered world economy might involve even the slightest amount of unpleasantness, or might demand anything like, say, abandoning the idea of growth. Instead, we are urged not to look behind the curtain, nor think more than one or two steps into the consequences of our choices.

What is being raved about at events such as the Model 3 unveiling, is not so much a technological solution commensurate to the enormous problem of climate change, nor a new way of thinking similarly commensurate, nor a brave confronting of ugly truths–but another way to “pretend to act“, as George Monbiot once put it.

Hence, even if the environmental benefits of switching to electric cars prove to be only modest, and far from enough to justify continuing our lifestyle expectations in “non-negotiable” style, we can expect that the switch will still be trumpeted as the true solution. What is truly unbearable to us, if anything, is that the emissions attendant to our lifestyle be produced close to us–which suggests an obvious culpability–rather than at a distance, out of sight and out of mind. Though it falls short of achieving drastic (>80%) emissions cuts, the deceptively tailpipe-less electric car satisfies this other, unspoken standard completely.

Of course, that a plan does not really break with previous habits of thought is no proof of its ultimate futility. Yet the story of the electric car is disappointing in that it shows, despite its self-promotion as the vanguard of innovation, imagination and revolutionary change, that we are in fact rock-firm in the same view of life that got us here: technological, exploitative, objectifying, materialistic, and dedicated to the endless expansion and intensification of all of the above.

Similar inner contradictions and inadequacies can be seen in the much-celebrated recent reports of “decoupling” of carbon emissions from economic growth–another example of pretending at radical re-envisioning while bear-hugging the status quo. In particular, it was just reported that we’ve had 2 years with no growth in global energy-related CO2 emissions, while the economy grew 3%.

Of course that assessment too has a number of major problems. First, yes, the absolute amount of CO2 emissions stagnated in 2014 and 2015, but at an all-time high–an odd thing to celebrate. Second, most of that stagnation in emissions owed to the US converting coal power plants over to natural gas produced by fracking, which is hardly a renewables revolution or proof of “decoupling”.

Third, the same graph of emissions by year that is so proudly displayed by so many green free-marketers reveals many other periods with no emissions growth occurred, like the early ’90s. Celebrating 2 years with no increase in emissions as clear evidence of decoupling is then oddly redolent of denialists’ shoddy claims, from a few years ago, that a single warming “hiatus” disproved anthropogenic global warming.

Finally, at almost the exact same time as these celebrations began, there was another report (also mentioned by Musk at the Model 3 unveiling, by the way) that atmospheric CO2 has just logged the largest year-on-year increase ever recorded–3.05 ppm. It is hard enough to compile such a complex and surely noisy indicator as GDP or global CO2 emissions as it is; but to then compare them to each other, assuming a 3% change to be outside the margin of error, while at the same time ignoring that CO2 levels have actually risen unprecedentedly, takes the kind of wishful thinking that only a deep terror of green capitalism’s patent inadequacy could evoke.

Like the story of the electric car as the clear-cut solution to the ills of transportation-based carbon emissions, then, the story of “decoupling” is based merely on the unthinkability of more uncomfortable alternatives. Eleven years after Al Gore’s eponymous movie supposedly cut into our consciousness and brought climate change firmly into mainstream view, we still are unable to come to grips with the notion that climate change may truly prove “inconvenient”.

And so the decadent yet guilt-ridden masses of consumerist Moderns flock to Musk and other green capitalists for absolution, shouting out their love not only for delivering that absolution, but for the calm tacit promise that things can remain pretty much the way they are–just cleaner, sleeker, and of course, with excellent 0-60 acceleration. Commend yourself to Elon’s wisdom and all shall be set right; he shall show you not only that the very essence of technology and individual greed are no way to blame for what is happening to the planet, but that they are the only things that can save it.

The real genius at work here is marketing–and as much of a carefully curated heroic image of ourselves as buyers, as of the electric cars. But while a passionate desire to believe a story is important to that story’s success, it is simply not sufficient. Like Tesla with its massive debts and product debuts that telescope ever further out into the future, or the dream that pollution that happens far enough from your own car somehow isn’t your fault, or the fevered hope that a two-year stall in carbon emissions proves our standard market-based model is rising to the challenge of warming, the “no sacrifices” story passes trippingly from quarter to fiscal quarter on its way to an imagined future. By the time its utter insufficiency becomes undeniable, it will be too late even for the harshest sacrifices, or the most dogged acts of denial and displacement, to make up for the chances that were missed.

Gravitational Waves: the Picture Clarifies

In a recent post, I was leery of the claimed detection of gravitational waves. This was for a number of reasons–but mainly because 1) the entire announcement was based on only a single observation in five months, 2) the signal could not be localized, and 3) no corroborating signals were seen in any other instrumental mode (X-rays, etc.)

I felt and still feel that going public with such an immense and unhedged claim–on the strength of just a single observation (GW150914) made under rather odd circumstances–was a questionable decision, and deserved a considerably more guarded reception by the press than was universally the case.

That said, I’ve just seen a couple additional pieces of information I didn’t know about when I wrote the original post–and they leave me a lot more satisfied that gravitational waves have indeed been detected.

First, it looks like at least two additional likely gravitational wave events (named GW151012 and GW151226) were spotted by LIGO, in October and December 2015 respectively, although these results were subsequently erased from the LIGO web cache.

Second, there’s this paper, indicating that a strong gamma-ray spike occurred within a second of the GW150914 event, and that it came from the same general area of the sky as GW150914. Gamma-ray pulses could definitely be produced by the merger of black holes if there was even a tiny bit of matter floating around them.

The gamma-ray observation only is able to narrow the location of the source to about a quarter of the whole sky, and I guess the timing could also be coincidental–gamma ray bursts are not too rare–but at this point it’s looking silly to doubt.

So, if the additional events of 10/12 and 12/26 hold up, we’ve gotten the triplicate of observations I wanted and I hereby withdraw my quibbles. I do still wonder why the two other observations were not included in the original announcement and manuscript. Vicissitudes of the publication process? A decision that the media optics would be best going with the first signal alone while polishing up the data for the other two?

Hopefully more results will be fully vetted and out in the open very soon.

Science Writing Experiment: Phosphorescent Reminiscences

As if to downplay the risk of becoming too grown-up here in my thirties, I unexpectedly ended up spending the last few days playing with glow-in-the-dark powder. As I did, I found a range of old memories and impressions washing over me, and I also learned one or two new things.

There is a special wonder and strangeness about luminescence. Things that glow are usually linked in the imagination with uncanny hidden powers, whether mythological or scientific. In the former case I think of magical swords in the Tolkien universe that glow when orcs are near, or hidden cities of elves; the glow of ghosts and angel’s halos, and the disturbing augurs long ago linked with comets, aurorae, and St. Elmo’s fire (and still, in some parts of the world).

In the latter case, I picture the Curies in their little laboratory, filling vials with luminous radium, knowing they were face to face with some tremendous new power but tragically unaware of what it could ultimately do to them. I think of Roentgen noticing the unexpected glow of a fluorescent sheet on the other side of the room whenever his cathode ray equipment was switched on, and wondering what the nature of these strange new “X-rays” could be.

I remember first getting hold of those cheap chemical glow sticks and glow necklaces when I was a kid, my total amazement when I first saw them being passed out by a vendor at the state fair some still summer night many years ago. With their pure sharp colors so unlike anything in nature, they pierced the night, and seemed to me not like plastic do-dads filled with cheap reagents, but magic-steeped fragments of another world. Kids who got them were visitors to that world, and to be immediately envied. When I finally got hold of one it was rapture; when the reactants ran out after a few hours and the like dimmed away I felt a unique disappointment. But I soon consoled myself with the discovery that the glow could be saved for weeks by just putting the glow sticks in the freezer. Warmed back up in my hands after its long sleep, the glow would return for me to admire, before I carefully put it back in its suspended animation.

I soon learned about radioactivity and the long-time uses of radium salts in watch dials–the elusive, evanescent element lingering in tiny traces in uranium ore, itself an incredibly exotic substance to me. Knowing what radium had done to the Curies and the girls who painted those pretty luminous dials almost increased my awe, for it showed this was not just a matter of glowing salt but something deeper, something to be feared, with the power to burn and destroy any impudent mortals who dared come too close. The atom was an Aladdin’s lamp concealing a terrifying genie, whom we could only hope would not come raging out at us.

This was, of course, not much of a deterrent. I finally got hold of an honest-to-goodness glowingly radioactive thing in high school. It was a tritium powered keychain–no radium at all. Instead of the deadly energetic bazooka explosions of alpha radiation given off by radium, the tritium gave off beta particles, near-weightless free-flying electrons–and ones so weak they couldn’t even get through a sheet of paper. But the keychain’s soft blue glow perfectly jibed with my amazement at the idea of a light that could go on and on for decades without the slightest recharging. In this incredibly small but incontestable way, I could carry a tiny nuclear-powered energy source around in my pocket.

The peak of my nuclear-themed interest in luminescence came when I figured out how to create my own makeshift spinthariscope. In the early freewheeling years where radioactivity was a breathtakingly novel phenomenon, a kind of emblem for the wonders of the new scientific-technological age, spinthariscopes were a popular party toy: a tiny speck of radium was mounted on a needle, held at the right distance in front of a luminous screen, and then curious party-goers would gaze through a lens at the screen.

It’s hard to imagine parties quite that nerdy ever being the norm. But what they saw through that lens was, if you were in the right frame of mind to appreciate it, utterly breathtaking: a blizzard of tiny flashes of light, each flash marking the place where an alpha particle shot from a disintegrating radium had crashed into the screen at 5% the speed of light, creating a tiny storm of atomic excitement so intense you could see it with the naked eye. Here, luminosity was not just the general marker of radioactivity’s presence, but marked the specific decay of a single atom.

I had to see this. I make-shifted my own spinthariscope by busting open an old smoke detector to get at the americium (smoke detectors use a tiny piece of radioactive material to makes the nearby air conductive; if smoke gets in, the air the conductivity drops and the alarm goes off). Then I broke open a tiny old black-and-white TV and took a chunk of the screen, whose inside surface had its special power of glowing when struck by radiation of all sorts. Holding the pieces together in a tiny closet with my bare hands, the fabled blizzard of light came suddenly into view on the screen before my own eyes. I was watching individual atoms explode–on television at that. For sheer scientific gee-whiz moments, I don’t know if I’ve ever topped it.

For some reason, I didn’t give much thought to luminescence for years after that–maybe I thought that last experience was impossible to top. I worked in laboratories with all kinds of fluorescent dyes and markers, but it all seemed unremarkable, too systematic, like a mere part of the workaday grind. It’s funny how some circumstances inspire wonder right away and some simply don’t, even after years of chances.

But a few days ago I found some old glow-in-the dark powder in a drawer and felt myself inexplicably intrigued by it. A few minutes in the sun or under a blacklight, and it would glow a sickly yellow-green for several minutes in the dark. It was like a sponge for light, I thought. What a strange idea–that a substance could somehow grab hold of light, hold it in an inert form, and then gradually set it free again!

As usual when I’m hit by these kinds of whirlwinds of curiosity about some sciency thing or other, my instinct was to go online and try to buy that thing cheap, which I promptly did. I quickly found that the old stuff I had was an antiquated kind of glow-in-the-dark powder–zinc sulfide with copper added–and that there was now a substance that could glow ten times as brightly. Apparently a lot had happened in the world of luminescence during my post-spinthariscope years of neglect; there was a bit of catching up to do.

It turns out the story goes back pretty far. The first known discoverer of phosphorescence was an Italian cobbler and alchemist, Vincenzo Casciarolo. In 1602, Casciarolo was exploring around a volcanic deposit on Mt. Paderno, near Bologna, when he discovered pieces of a whitish stone which he decided to collect and bring home to his lab. It’s not clear just what particularly interested him about this stone, but with the search for the philosopher’s stone very much a going concern in those days, he likely hoped this sample would hold the ticket to alchemical superstardom–and riches beyond belief.

Though Casciarolo failed to turn lead into gold, he found something almost as interesting–after calcining (roasting) the newfound rocks, they gained the ability to, as accounts of the time described it, “attract the golden light of the sun”. Placed in a sunny spot for a few minutes, the rocks would glow with a golden hue in darkness for a number of hours. Casciarolo’s discovery drew the wonderment and admiration of other alchemists, made him widely known, and marked the beginning of the science of luminescence.

It was to prove a slow beginning indeed. The white stone Casciarolo found is now recognized as barite–barium sulfate–and the “Bologna stone” he produced by roasting it was barium sulfide, with a trace of copper impurity that imparts the awesome power of phosphorescence. However, for nearly 400 years, almost no new substances were found to have this weird property. Zinc sulfide, activated with impurities of copper or silver, was known through most of the 20th century to be about the best phosphorescent material going in terms of length of glow, but it still wasn’t very bright, and would fade in just a few minutes–all in all, not much better than poor Casciarolo had been able to achieve.

Finally, in 1996, there came one of those great yet relatively unsung breakthroughs in materials science, rather like the invention of neodymium magnets or even the advent of high-temperature superconductors. A group of material scientists in Tokyo had been experimenting with adding (doping) different kinds of rare-earth elements into a phosphor called europium-doped strontium aluminate. This phosphor had been known about for decades, but had an even shorter glow time than zinc sulfide. It was only of academic interest. But the researchers found that after adding a small additional amount of the rare-earth dysprosium, this boring old phosphor underwent a remarkable transformation–when fully charged, it could now store light for a day or longer, all while glowing with ten times the brightness of older phosphors. It became, to use a very non-technical term, a super-duper-phosphor.

That brings us back to the present. Like so many obscure yet groundbreaking innovations, the advent of this new phosphor quickly and quietly revolutionized the production of luminescent products–toys of course, but also watches, artwork, exit signs, and other kinds of emergency lighting. When I started looking online, it wasn’t at all hard to find strontium aluminate phosphor–in fact it has become common and cheap, replacing zinc sulfide almost everywhere. I ordered a small amount of the coarsest-grained version–supposed to be the brightest and longest-glowing–and it arrived promptly.

When I took out the small pouch, it looked completely unimpressive, just a small bag of off-white colored sand. I set it underneath a bright fluorescent light and left it alone, vaguely unimpressed. After ten minutes I came back, turned off the light, and was given a rare treat. The strontium aluminate was blazingly bright, literally throwing shadows across the room, like a strong night-light. The glow was a remarkable light blue, almost exactly like the tritium light I’d first been amazed by all those years ago. I had seen glowing stuff before, but never so intensely. Even half an hour later, it was still dazzling, still throwing shadows across the room. Here again after so long was one of those rare moments where wonder alights and you feel presence of a kind of magic–and then I was back in time, remembering my strange childhood fascination with glowing stuff.

Here’s how luminescence works. First, there are two main kinds: fluorescence and phosphorescence. Lots of common things, for example hi-liter ink and the fabric brighteners in T-shirts, will fluoresce; they glow when a light of another color shines on them. But fluorescent substances don’t store any light and instantly go dark again when the other light is taken away.

Phosphorescence, on the other hand, is when the absorbed light gets stored up instead of immediately released. This trick depends on quantum mechanics in action. With fluorescence, the luminescent substances can absorb light, boosting their electrons to a high-energy state. But the high-energy and resting (“ground”) states have the same angular momentum, so it is easy for the electrons to fall back down almost at once. In phosphorescence, on the other hand, the electrons then become “trapped” in a high energy state that is much more stable, because it has a different angular momentum or “spin” than the ground state.

Angular momentum, along with energy and electric charge, is one of those fundamental entities that is conserved in our universe–it can’t be created out of nothing or destroyed. This is why the re-emission of light in a phosphor is so slow. But quantum mechanics allows some wiggle room: over time, even “forbidden” events like a spontaneous change in angular momentum can take place, given enough time, and if they are small enough. This is why the light sponged up by a phosphor is not trapped there forever.

The process of making the forbidden jump depends on heat energy, in the form of tiny vibrations in the material, so phosphorescence is strongly dependent on temperature. Indeed, like the chemical glow sticks of my old memories, I found that strontium aluminate phosphor is very sensitive to temperature. Just sticking it in the freezer will kill the glow, but it starts right back up when warmed in the hand (an interesting way of visualizing heat flow).

This is a roughly correct explanation of how phosphorescence itself works, but note that it tells us nothing about why, of all things, strontium aluminate with europium and dysprosium added makes for such a spectacularly bright and long-lived way of storing light energy.

In fact, there is as of this writing no universally accepted fundamental explanation of this phenomenon.

Like so many scientific wonders we now enjoy, the strontium aluminate super-phosphor was not designed or predicted in any way from theory, but was the result of luck and inspired guesswork. In their paper announcing its discovery, its own inventors did propose a mechanism for how it stores light so much efficiently than anything else out there–but they came up with it only after they knew about the remarkable phosphorescent properties.

In the years since then, that first mechanism has been mostly discredited, and one new theory after another has been put forward to replace it, none with complete success. In a very real way, the ongoing attempt to understand the mechanism behind this new phosphor technology is like a microcosm of how scientific theories develop–not by the awesome power of deductive insight, but in a bootstrapping, post-hoc fashion, one experimental defeat after another.

This lack of an overarching theory may be pretty typical of whole fields in science, but it still means that progress has been completely hit-or-miss–and mostly miss. For although the super-phosphor has been known for about 20 years now, there is still nothing on the horizon that is much better. The search for brighter or longer-persistence glow materials after strontium aluminate has turned up little.

From another perspective, one can be tempted to take this as a sobering lesson about the limitations of science, and the way that progress in many sciences does not always follow the dependably exhilarating exponential progress that we have gotten so accustomed to from the semiconductor age and Moore’s law (and even Moore’s Law is not looking very healthy these days).

Again the comparison to high-temperature superconductivity and high-strength magnets is apropos: after a heyday in the 1980s, no superconductors have been found that work above liquid-nitrogen temperatures (except at freakishly high pressures). And while the discovery of neodymium magnets, also in the ’80s, created its own quiet revolution in electronics and other technologies, there are serious physics obstacles to creating magnets any stronger. As with the super-glowing aluminates, in both cases we know how these substances work only in a post-hoc, hand-wavy kind of way.

To me the lesson of all this is that we live with the uneasy paradox–we stand upon an unprecedented pinnacle of scientific understanding, yet, to an alarming degree, that pinnacle rests not on reliably cranking out advances like a factory, but rather on a vanishingly small number of game-changing breakthroughs that we cannot repeat or even always fully explain.

Often, overwhelmed by the fire-hose of marvels of our technological age–more of which seem to be about marketing and fashion than true novelty–we fail to appreciate “simple” discoveries that aren’t really so simple after all but that have quietly remade our lives. We should be more appreciative of these for the fantastic one-offs that they very possibly are. To sit in a dark room, childishly transfixed by the riddle of how a bit of dust can store up a day’s worth of light, seems to me as good an homage as any.