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Over the last few years I haven’t had much cause for complaint… Apart from one point where my stomach stopped operating like it usually did i.e. free of pain and without sporadic bouts of diarrhoea and vomiting. During these various episodes of malaise I had a deep and penetrating insight into how, not only should we be looking after our own bodies… But we should be looking after the planet that we call home too, as well as all the animals living on it… Especially those creatures (bacteria) living in our intestines and on our bodies.
As I’m sure any one who’s been ill knows, when one’s body goes through the stages of a fever/sickness, it seems to knock one’s mental (and physical) state of well being right out from the usual balanced groove of daily awareness. During a fever/sickness, one becomes almost dizzy and drunk on nausea, unable to focus on the usual things we like to get on with, such as work and play. Waves of sickness and pain rob us of our faculties and we find the only course of action is but to lie down and rest. Even when the fever/sickness finally wears off, it still takes at least a few days to get back into the usual rhythm of bodily awareness and feeling that we had before. Everything seems slow and we are aware of a dullness that still seems to linger on in our core.
Sickness is certainly not a pleasant state of being to find one’s “self” in… However, when it is over, I usually find my “self” exceptionally thankful that I am once again feeling “normal”. That slight derailment makes sure that I do not take for granted each and every moment of good health and well-being that I find my “self” enjoying. And I usually find myself wondering about the symptoms that this body presented (which I usually don’t care much about during the sickness). Funnily enough, every time I was ill, the same symptoms kept presenting themselves. We’re talking symptoms based around the stomach here: cramps, pains, diarrhoea, vomiting, etc… all of which literally left me so drained that I could hardly do anything other than lie down and rest/sleep through as much of it as I possibly could.
During one episode in particular, I remember – in a sort of very blurry way – that the pain in my stomach became so excruciating, it actually felt like someone had stabbed me in my belly and left me to writhe around on the floor dying slowly. Thankfully I have never been stabbed in the stomach before… But, if I had to take a wild guess at what it might actually feel like, I would say that what I had experienced on this one particular occasion wouldn’t be too far off the mark. To add to the pain I felt then, some other quite alarming symptoms had also begun to manifest, symptoms which I won’t mention here as I feel they probably go a bit beyond the mark of what should be reasonably be shared with most people on-line (I need a bit of privacy, regardless of sharing a lot of my inner most thoughts). Though I will mention that, while going through this particular ordeal, I began to feel the steady state of my mind loosing it’s usual calm and collected composure of being.
Somewhere over the course of that one evening, as the pain mounted steadily while driving back from the farm, when we arrived home, I literally began to scream at my partner to call me an ambulance. Just remembering that experience in my mind makes me flinch… Even 12 months on. I’ve literally broken bones before. Nothing to be proud of, I know… Rather I just felt like I could do some rather superhuman things when I was younger and get away without injury, like Superman might… And, for whatever the reason, I never really grasped the fact that I might have to consider suffering the consequences if something didn’t go according to plan (I put that down to reading far too many superhero comics). The most painful fracture I can remember was when I broke my arm in three places (elbow, wrist and scaphoid) while following my brother down a dry ski slope. What can I say… Plastic bristles laid over solid concrete isn’t exactly the most forgiving sort of surface media to ‘wipe-out’ on when travelling at 50 mph. And, yes, the pain was fairly full on for whole week after that particular accident. But the pain I felt in my stomach on that one occasion made that skiing fracture seem like a small paper cut or a bramble scratch.
During the onset of this illness, I acutely remember how my usual state of mental well being and general awareness (for my surroundings and the people in them) began to deteriorate into a rhythm of disturbed, knee-jerk reactions that echoed the pain I was in… I had literally become blasé about what I said to people around me, most of whom were only trying to help. At one point I clearly remember hurling insults at one of the nurses as she tried to find a vein from which to take a blood sample… Mind you, she had tried pricking my hand with a needle three times in a row but hadn’t found a suitable vein from which to get the blood she needed. After her third attempt I very curtly requested, in no uncertain terms, that she stop immediately and leave me alone… Which she did… But before she left, she insisted that it was imperative they took a blood sample in order to make an accurate diagnosis of my “unusual” symptoms. So off she went to find another nurse who might have better luck. When this new nurse appeared, nearly 15 minutes later, he pricked me another four times without any success. As you can imagine, my state of mind after the seventh “stab” had become irritable and mistrusting at beast… Not only was I in a bad way with the pain in my stomach, I was now also nursing a very bruised and painful left hand. Needless to say, with not a lot more they could do, they left me to rest alone in the emergency ward, simply giving me some pain-killers along with some tablets that were meant to treat stomach ulcers.
As I was lying there, I noticed my various bodily sensations… The first hour passed very slowly as the pain remained in full bloom, pulsing at times with that stabbing sharpness of a blade being twisted in my gut. However, a few hours later, as the exhaustion began to kick in from all the writhing over the last seven hours and the medication began to take effect, I must have fallen asleep. When I came to, I noticed that light was pouring in through the ward’s windows… By then the pain in my stomach had subsided to relatively manageable levels, while my swollen and sore hand was very heavily bruised. Mumbling thirstily for some water, the duty nurse came round to view me at about and asked how I was doing. I replied a lot better. She mentioned that, as they hadn’t been able to take a blood sample, they were obviously reluctant to offer a definitive diagnosis of what the episode I had endured could be. However, as they had noticed that the ulcer medication they had given me had seemed to reduce the pain a fair bit, they presumed it had probably been ulcer related (though she said that ulcers didn’t usually cause diarrhoea as well). As such, they prescribed me a course of tablets to take over a month to help reduce any persisting symptoms.
By this point, I had been ill with the same symptoms for nearly a whole year… And, regardless of all the blood tests and stool samples taken and given at the doctor’s each time, no one could figure out what was the matter. This culminating incident at AE was the first time I had been given any medication for my symptoms, something that hinted at what the my aliment might actually be. It’s hard being ill when one doesn’t know the cause of their symptoms. It wasn’t like I was drinking stagnant water from a contaminated well… Or even eating a dodgy India take-away… Rather these bouts of malaise usually came about without any warning whatsoever.
When I arrived home from the hospital later that morning by taxi – feeling a lot better than I had done the night before – I had a bit of shock. Walking through the front door, I immediately noticed that some of the banisters had been broken and were lying in pools of vomit, which were randomly splattered over much of the first floor landing. Other artefacts were also lying strewn across the floor, almost as though someone had ransacked the house looking for something. Looking at this mess before me, I slowly began to recall the events of the night before leading up to the ambulance arriving. Piece by piece the, and all quite vividly, I remembered how I had broken the banisters myself while in the grips of various painful spasms, in between which I had tossed books and anything else that came to hand on the ground as if to try to find some relief from the excruciating pain. To be fair, I never thought that anyone, let alone my “self”, would be able to do anything like that while in the grips of that much pain… But, somewhat shockingly, I realised that had forgotten my “self” during it all and thrown reason to the wind.
That particular episode, when set against the various other episodes that I had gone through over the previous few years (about 13 episodes in total, none of which were anywhere as near painful as this particular one), I was left wondering as to what it might be that was repeatedly causing these bouts of sporadic illness. Having gone to see my doctor at least seven times during this period, I had repeated to him the same symptoms with each new episode. However, he literally couldn’t figure it out. After all the various fecal tests and blood tests they had given me, nothing obvious showed up.
So without any clear reason for these episodes, and particularly bearing in mind my last experience in hospital, the doctor began to presume the worst. He recommended that I get a colonoscopy done as soon as possible as he thought my symptoms might be related to the onset of bowl cancer. When I heard this, I began to feel quite concerned and, as such, felt a bit depressed about the fact that I might well have to expect more illness to come. So I arranged pronto to have a colonoscopy done. Over a period of two months, while waiting for the results I fell ill a couple more times. Still, despite having had the colonoscopy, nothing untoward was revealed in my gut and colon, so the idea that these symptoms might relate to bowel cancer was ruled out.
Aside from this brief bit of relief, we were still nowhere nearer to discovering what the cause of these seemingly random bouts of stomach trouble were related to. Bearing in mind nothing nasty had been found in my stomach… And neither did I have any sign of stomach or bowel cancer… My doctor simply suggested that we wait until it happened again and, once the symptoms manifested again, we’d try to figure out what it might be.
This passive approach left me a bit startled, to say least… So I decided to take matters into my own hands. Thus, I began to read quite a bit about the stomach and how it functioned… In doing this, I found myself revisiting a lot of things that I had learnt during my university days. I was re-aquainted with the basic idea of how the stomach is populated with natural flora and fauna i.e. bacteria and fungi, that work and live in symbiosis with our bodies, helping us to digest the bulk of all the food that we eat, readily releasing the stored nutrients and energy within each morsel for our body to easily absorb… All the while taking what they needed for their own survival too. During this, one particular point that I kept bumping in to again and again (while reading through all various scientific papers) was about how most bacteria, if found in small enough numbers, were actually beneficial to the body… But if they grew disproportionately large in number, then they became pathogenic, causing infections and illness (which usually might not be diagnosed, because the bacteria found in one’s gut were expected to be there).
Pondering this point while ‘digesting’ several of articles recently published in the Scientific American, I revisited an idea that I had originally come across in one of my microbiology modules at university. The idea (derived from a fair amount of empirical research) demonstrated that minor changes in dietary habits i.e. increased consumption of refined sugars (which can specifically select for certain types of bacteria/fungi over others) and/or elevated ingestion of alcohol, can sometimes cause major imbalances between some of the natural gut flora and fauna that is usually found within our guts and, thus, give rise to stomach problems on one sort or another. This was thought to the major cause of that enigmatic condition that so many 21st century people seem to suffer from: Irritable Bowel Syndrome (or IBS for short). During that very lesson, it was also (somewhat obviously) stated that the intestinal ingestion of antibiotics (so as to treat various severe infections elsewhere within the body) can also cripple/impair the natural balance of bacteria within our stomachs and upon out bodies. It’s not rocket science… Put a strong broad spectrum antibiotic into a place where there are a broad and diverse range of bacteria and you’ll wipe a lot of them out. This obviously destroys the natural balance, leaving other bacteria that usually weren’t there to fill the gaps. For whatever the reason, only now are medical scientists and physicians starting to realise that the wide array of various stomach upsets (from IBS to diarrhoea) that commonly appear several years down the line might be due to people having been ‘blasted’ with antibiotic treatments.
Bearing in mind I had been prescribed quite a few antibiotics in my twenties and, in particular, once in my teens (where I almost died from a pneumococcal infection)… Not to mention I had also begun to enjoy a good bottle of fine French wine every now and again (as any microbiologist will tell you, alcohol is a good sterilising agent)… I began to wonder whether my own gut had fallen prey to an imbalance between the usual suspects of flora and fauna that normally helped me digest my food and lead a normal, healthy life style. So I very carefully started to recall all the various species of bacteria that I had learnt would be commonly found living in our guts… From Escherichia coli (various strains of which I worked with at university), Lactobacillus gasseri, Lactobacillu casei, Lactobacillu reuteri, Streptococcus thermophilus, Bacteroides thetaitaomicron and Helicobacter pylori, to name but a few microbes that commonly live in our guts, it became clear to me that we have a very varied selection of lodgers living within us… These lodgers – when living in harmoney with each other – pay their dues to themselves and us by creating the right harmony of chemicals and nutrients that directly result in our (both humans and bacteria) overall good health and well-being.
Besides these lodgers in our stomachs, we also have microbes living in our mouths and respiratory systems too e.g. Stretococcus viridans, Stretococcus salivarius, Neisseria sicca and Candida albicans (the yeast that causes “Thrush” infects). In fact, this thin film of microbial life doesn’t just exist inside our bodies… It also exists outside our bodies too. For example, on our skin we commonly find Staphylococcus haemolyticus, Staphylococcus epidermidis and Corynebacterium jeikeium… All of these bacteria usually live quite happily and peaceably in and amongst our body’s cellular activities. However, when our immune system is down or compromised in some way or another, some of these bacteria can break out in a rash (quite literally) of over population that in turn causes illness and malady in the patient. When these ‘riots’ break out, the usual course of action in severe cases would have been – as we saw used to happen in my twenties – to treat the patient and affected areas with antibiotics of one variety or another.
These broad-spectrum antibiotics would usually focus on a particular type of biochemical pathway that the culprit infectious organism would rely on to grow in numbers i.e. all penicillins are β-lactam antibiotics that are used in the treatment of bacterial infections caused by susceptible, usually Gram-positive, organisms gram (gram positive or gram negative relates to the two main types of cell wall structure of bacterium in general). These antibiotic chemicals usually inhibit certain common biochemical mechanisms throughout a wide array of micro-organism, without any specificity to the particular aggravating organism… Thus, when these chemicals inhibit the biochemical pathways relating to the manufacture of cell walls, nearly every other type of bacteria that relied upon this common biochemical pathway to grown and increase in number would also be inhibited. As their life spans can be measured in days, nearly all of them would die off without any progeny to take their place. While this would solve the problem of the infection, it would also wreck the balance of other commensal bacteria that usually might have existed there too.
This mass genocide of microbial life in and on our bodies causes problems further down the line as, by upsetting the delicate balance that these organisms have established between themselves, when they grow back (and, believe me, they grown back because we find them everywhere in our environment, like when we shake hands with others, etc…) the balance is sometimes so different to what it used to be that big difference start to occur in the way they (some of them new strains of the same bacteria) operate and find balance between themselves. While we might not notice these changes immediately, within a few months, or even a few years, this new type of balance between microbial flora and fauna present in and within out bodies comes about to effecting us, sometimes beneficially or, at other times, not so beneficially.
Some people find it hard to believe that usually benign species micro-organisms can sometimes become unwitting pathogens as they grow beyond their usual numbers in order to fill a void left by another innocent victim of the doctor’s antibiotic ‘strike’. In fact, I was recently told by my doctor that antibiotics were not the only cause of imbalances in our gut’s ‘natural’ flora and fauna. Sometimes, modern diets of highly processed and overly sterilized foods leaves out various key ingredients that these bacteria need to survive. And nearly all processed foods now don’t have any key inoculations i.e. cultures of bacteria to re-introduce into our digestive systems, that would normally have been ingested through the regular (dare I say “normal”) diets of our ancestors a hundred years or so ago! In fact, modern food processing is essentially digesting the foods for us before hand into their basic chemical make ups and then packaging it. No bacteria are allowed to be present in the food, in case some of them are nasty ones… But this means that the bacteria living in our guts don’t have the usual nutrients needed for their own well being. As we have seen throughout various articles within this blog, balance is a BIG key factor to sustaining most complex systems.
Going back to remembering the experience of my 12 year old body being bombarded by a dual array of antibiotics to fend off a major infection that nearly took my life… I can’t say that I ever really felt the same after that treatment. It was no way like any of the other brief antibiotic runs that I had been given to overcome colds and stomach problems, etc… The feeling I had been left with was harsher, almost cleaner, than before… As though something integral to my “life force” had been taken away. Over the years I began to get used to this new feeling in my body. While I could feel something had changed (though I had no idea exactly what), I was better than I had been, so I didn’t feel that I needed to ask too many questions. Saying that, whenever I became ill after that blitz, it was usually related – in one way or another – to my stomach and bowels. So, while focusing on my innards during this painful fever, I began thinking about which bacteria I could and should try to reintroduce into my gut in order to help create a healthy balance of flora and fauna… After which, more importantly, I began to wonder where these bacteria came from originally… ?
As I thought this through – perceiving the direct line of contact between my body and its environment from birth through to present – it dawned on me that as soon as we are born, bacteria move in to stake their claim in our digestive and respiratory tracts, as well as around our teeth and on our skin and various orifices. Would you believe that the first wave of these colonising organisms probably comes directly from our mothers: when we come out of their vaginal passage, we are coated in a sticky mess of amniotic fluids and placenta… Just as in our mother’s urinary tract (and our father’s too) there are known to be similar microbes that live within our passages. It was like a game of tag. These microbes would easily rub off on our own naked form as the rough and heavy pushing of our mothers to dislodge our tiny bodies from their wombs pushed us along the length of their vaginas and into the cold light of day. The next wave of colonizers would probably come from the foods we ingested… No doubt, as we are breast fed, we pick up bacteria from our mother’s skin and from her milk. Then, as these organisms grow inside and upon us, they establish increasingly more and more complex communities, like a forest that gradually takes over a clearing. By the time we’re a few years old, these communities have matured (ever notice the way babies changes in smell?), and we carry them with us, more or less, for our entire lives.
Thinking about how readily bacteria go through thousands of generations in just a few days (for perspective, it takes humans tens of thousands of years to do that), the rate at which they evolve and adapt to their surroundings is astonishing. Sometimes the bacteria within our guts can become some in tune with the chemicals secreted by other organisms that they evolve into fitting into a highly delicate and specific niche, tailored specifically for our own bodies and diets. Remove one of those organisms from that complex dynamic, and change ripples through the system. Even if you replace it with another bacteria of exactly the same species as before, because the new bacteria have gone through the naturally selective pressures from the environmental chemical soup found in our guts, they don’t fit exactly in that niche like the other bacterial organism might have done. Any change in our gut usually causes some sort of feeling or upset on our part. So we have to look them if we want to avoid pain and discomfort.
I still find it amazing that our bodies harbour 100 trillion bacterial cells, which outnumbers our own bodily human cells 10 to 1!!! It’s easy to overlook this astonishing fact… Especially, if you had no idea about the workings and goings on within the complex biochemical ecosystem that we call our bodies. Bacteria are tiny in comparison to human cells; they contribute just a few pounds to our weight and remain totally invisible to our naked eyes. As such, it’s little wonder that science has (until late) overlooked the major roles that they play in helping us and our bodies remain healthy and active.
Researchers have usually largely concerned themselves only with the negative roles that “some” bacteria play as pathogens: the devastating effects of a handful of infectious organisms have always seemed more urgent than what has been considered a benign and relatively unimportant relationship with “good” bacteria. Because of this somewhat backward view, it is little wonder why I was where I was i.e. suffering from gross bouts of malaise, including sickness and diarrhoea, with regular occurence. However, since I have begun caring for these little “friends” of mine living in my intestine, eating a diverse selection of foods that feed and help them grow and remain comfortable (as well as eating food that sometimes has quite of few them already growing in), I have found that I have not had ANY cause for complaint. As such, this new awareness of my relative “self” and the body that it relates to, as well as the “friendly” microscopic inhabitants living on it, has meant that I can now properly look after it all… Properly understanding my “self” has opened the door to helping those who were complaining to me about the slightly unbalanced diet that I was feeding upon.
Now, all satisfied, I am happy to report that “they” feel happy too. I know this because my gut, which – would you believe – is an extension of my brain, feels happy. This bacterial hub of a body – that teems with trillions of microbes, all of whom make my life easier to live by digesting a lot of the foods I eat into natural and easily assimilable chemicals to keep me healthy and in balanced awareness – feels happy. In fact, bearing in mind my Buddhist tendencies, I have to say I feel that they are now happy to eat at the same table as I do.
In many ways, I find this research into how to look after my passengers within me – ones that out number my own cells and help me to live a happy and carefree life of balanced biochemical awareness – is a powerful analogy for understanding interdependence and our relationship with this planet. Without all the help of these bacteria i.e. their respective participation in my body’s biochemical needs, my life is one of illness and malaise. However, if I take the time to care for them and properly look after them, then they happily support me and keep me functioning in the usual groove of good health (something that I now never take for granted any more). Amazing really. No idea why a doctor couldn’t have told me that in the first place. !?
Much in the same way, our planet needs us to look after it so it can support us happily. Without all these organisms living on it – and without our care and help (whether bees or other insects to do the pollinating OR trees to replenish our air), we will not be able to live here in the same ease and comfort that we seem to enjoy at present. We need to continually check ourselves and understand that we should never take for granted all the wonders of life around us. We are just as much a part of them as they are a part of us. When we realise this, we will see how far away from a healthy and sustainable way of life we are here in Earth. Only then will we have the ability to properly do something about it.
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How Bacteria In Our Bodies Protect Our Health
Researchers who study the friendly bacteria that live inside all of us are starting to sort out who is in charge—microbes or people? Biologists once thought that human beings were physiological islands, entirely capable of regulating their own internal workings. Our bodies made all the enzymes needed for breaking down food and using its nutrients to power and repair our tissues and organs. Signals from our own tissues dictated body states such as hunger or satiety. The specialized cells of our immune system taught themselves how to recognize and attack dangerous microbes—pathogens—while at the same time sparing our own tissues.
Over the past 10 years or so, however, researchers have demonstrated that the human body is not such a neatly self-sufficient island after all. It is more like a complex ecosystem—a social network—containing trillions of bacteria and other micro-organisms that inhabit our skin, genital areas, mouth and especially intestines. In fact, most of the cells in the human body are not human at all. Bacterial cells in the human body outnumber human cells 10 to one. Moreover, this mixed community of microbial cells and the genes they contain, collectively known as the microbiome, does not threaten us but offers vital help with basic physiological processes—from digestion to growth to self-defence.
So much for human autonomy.
Biologists have made good progress characterizing the most prevalent species of microbes in the body. More recently, they have begun to identify the specific effects of these residents. In so doing, they are gaining a new view of how our bodies function and why certain modern diseases, such as obesity and autoimmune disorders, are on the rise.
Out Of Many, One
When people think of microbes in the body, they usually think of pathogens. Indeed, for a long time researchers focused solely on these harmful bugs and ignored the possible importance of more benign ones. The reason, argues biologist Sarkis K. Mazmanian of the California Institute of Technology, is our skewed view of the world. “Our narcissism held us back; we tended to think we had all the functions required for our health,” he says. “But just because microbes are foreign, just because we acquire them throughout life, doesn’t mean they’re any less a fundamental part of us.”
Indeed, all humans have a microbiome from very early in life, even though they do not start out with one. Each individual acquires his or her own community of commensals (from the Latin for “sharing a table”) from the surrounding environment. Because the womb does not normally contain bacteria, newborns begin life as sterile, singular beings. But as they pass through the birth canal, they pick up some of Mom’s commensal cells, which then begin to multiply. Breastfeeding and handling by proud parents, grandparents, siblings, and friends—not to mention ordinary contact with bedsheets, blankets, and even pets—quickly contribute to an expanding ark of microbes. By late infancy our bodies support one of the most complex microbial ecosystems on the planet.
For the past five years or so scientists have been working to characterize the nature of this ecosystem. The task has been devilishly difficult. The bacterial cells in the intestines, for example, have evolved to grow in the crowded, oxygen-free environment of the gut, so many species do not survive well in the lonely expanse of a petri dish. Researchers have gotten around this problem, however, by studying the genetic instructions, the strands of DNA and RNA, found within a microbe rather than the whole cell itself. Because DNA and RNA can be manipulated in a normal, oxygenated laboratory environment, investigators can take microbial samples from the body, extract the genomic material and analyze the results.
Each species of commensal bacteria has a signature, it turns out—its own unique version of a gene (known as the 16S ribosomal RNA gene) that codes for a particular RNA molecule found in the ribosomes, the protein-making machinery of cells. By determining the sequence of this gene, scientists are creating a catalogue of the entire human microbiome. In this way, they can glean which species exist in our bodies and how the precise combination of species may differ from one person to another.
The next step is to analyze other genes found in the microbial community to determine which ones are active in people and what functions they perform. Again, that chore is a tall order because of the great number of species and because their genes get mixed together in the extraction process. Determining whether a specific bacterial gene is active (or expressed) in the body is relatively straightforward; figuring out to which species that particular gene belongs is not. Fortunately, the development of ever more powerful computers and ultrafast gene sequencers in the first decade of the 21st century has turned what would once have been an impossible task of sorting and analysis into merely a very complicated one.
Two separate groups of scientists, one in the U.S. and the other in Europe, have harnessed this new technology to enumerate the bacterial genes within the human body. In early 2010 the European group published its census of microbial genes in the human digestive system—3.3 million genes (from more than 1,000 species)—about 150 times the 20,000 to 25,000 genes in the human genome.
Research into the nature of the human microbiome has yielded many surprises: no two people share the same microbial makeup, for instance—even identical twins. This finding may help unravel a mystery presented by the Human Genome Project, which confirmed that the human DNA of all people the world over is 99.9 percent alike. Our individual fates, health and perhaps even some of our actions may have much more to do with the variation in the genes found in our microbiome than in our own genes. And although the microbiomes of different people vary markedly in the relative number and types of species they contain, most people share a core complement of helpful bacterial genes, which may derive from different species. Even the most beneficial bacteria can cause serious illness, however, if they wind up somewhere they are not supposed to be—for example, in the blood (causing sepsis) or in the web of tissue between the abdominal organs (causing peritonitis).
Friends With Benefits
The first inkling that beneficial bugs might do us good came decades ago during research on digestion and the production of vitamins in the guts of animals. By the 1980s investigators had learned that human tissue needs vitamin B12 for, among other things, cellular energy production, DNA synthesis and the manufacture of fatty acids and had determined that only bacteria synthesize the enzymes needed to make the vitamin from scratch. Similarly, scientists have known for years that gut bacteria break down certain components of food that would otherwise be indigestible and would pass out of the body unused. Only in the past few years, however, have they learned the juicy details: two commensal species in particular play major roles in both digestion and the regulation of appetite.
Perhaps the prime example of a helpful bug sounds like it was named after a Greek sorority or fraternity. Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron is a champion carbohydrate chomper, capable of breaking down the large, complex carbohydrates found in many plant foods into glucose and other small, simple, easily digestible sugars. The human genome lacks most of the genes required to make the enzymes that degrade these complex carbohydrates. B. thetaiotaomicron, on the other hand, has genes that code for more than 260 enzymes capable of digesting plant matter, thus providing humans with a way to efficiently extract nutrients from oranges, apples, potatoes and wheat germ, among other foods.
Fascinating details about how B. thetaiotaomicron interacts with, and provides sustenance to, its hosts come from studies of mice raised in a completely sterile environment (so they had no microbiome) and then exposed only to this particular strain of microbes. In 2005 researchers at Washington University in St. Louis reported that B. thetaiotaomicron survives by consuming complex carbohydrates known as polysaccharides. The bacteria ferment these substances, generating short-chain fatty acids (essentially their feces) that the mice can use as fuel. In this way, bacteria salvage calories from normally indigestible forms of carbohydrate, such as the dietary fiber in oat bran. (Indeed, rodents that are completely devoid of bacteria have to eat 30 per cent more calories than do rodents with an intact microbiome to gain the same amount of weight.)
The study of the microbiome has even partially rehabilitated the reputation of one disease-causing bacterium called Helicobacter pylori. Fingered by Australian physicians Barry Marshall and Robin Warren in the 1980s as the causative agent of peptic ulcers, H. pylori is one of the few bacteria that seem to thrive in the acidic environment of the stomach. While continued use of medicines known as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, had long been known to be a common cause of peptic ulcers, the finding that bacteria contributed to the condition was remarkable news. After Marshall’s discovery, it became standard practice to treat peptic ulcers with antibiotics. As a result, the rate of H. pylori–induced ulcers has dropped by more than 50 percent.
Yet the matter is not so simple, says Martin Blaser, now a professor of internal medicine and microbiology at New York University who has studied H. pylori for the past 25 years. “Like everyone, I started working on H. pylori as a simple pathogen,” he says. “It took a few years for me to realize that it was actually a commensal.” In 1998 Blaser and his colleagues published a study showing that in most people, H. pylori benefits the body by helping to regulate levels of stomach acids, thus creating an environment that suits itself and its host. If the stomach churns out too much acid for the bacteria to thrive, for example, strains of the bug that contain a gene called cagA start producing proteins that signal the stomach to tone down the flow of acid. In susceptible people, however, cagA has an unwelcome side effect: provoking the ulcers that earned H. pylori its nasty rap.
A decade later Blaser published a study suggesting that H. pylori has another job besides regulating acid. For years scientists have known that the stomach produces two hormones involved in appetite: ghrelin, which tells the brain that the body needs to eat, and leptin, which—among other things—signals that the stomach is full and no more food is needed. “When you wake up in the morning and you’re hungry, it’s because your ghrelin levels are high,” Blaser says. “The hormone is telling you to eat. After you eat breakfast, ghrelin goes down,” which scientists refer to as a postprandial (from the Latin word prandium, for “a meal”) decrease.
In a study published last year, Blaser and his colleagues looked at what happens to ghrelin levels before and after meals in people with and without H. pylori. The results were clear: “When you have H. pylori, you have a postprandial decrease in ghrelin. When you eradicate H. pylori, you lose that,” he says. “What that means, a priori, is that H. pylori is involved in regulating ghrelin”—and thus appetite. How it does so is still largely a mystery. The study of 92 veterans showed that those treated with antibiotics to eliminate H. pylori gained more weight in comparison to their uninfected peers—possibly because their ghrelin level stayed elevated when it should have dropped, causing them to feel hungry longer and to eat too much.
Two or three generations ago more than 80 percent of Americans played host to the hardy bug. Now less than 6 percent of American children test positive for it. “We have a whole generation of children who are growing up without H. pylori to regulate their gastric ghrelin,” Blaser says. Moreover, children who are repeatedly exposed to high doses of antibiotics are likely experiencing other changes in their microbial makeup. By the age of 15, most children in the U.S. have had multiple rounds of antibiotic treatment for a single ailment—otitis media, or ear infection. Blaser speculates that this widespread treatment of young children with antibiotics has caused alterations in the compositions of their intestinal microbiome and that this change may help explain rising levels of childhood obesity. He believes that the various bacteria within the microbiome may influence whether a certain class of the body’s stem cells, which are relatively unspecialized, differentiate into fat, muscle or bone. Giving antibiotics so early in life and thereby eliminating certain microbial species, he argues, interferes with normal signaling, thereby causing overproduction of fat cells.
Could the accelerating loss of H. pylori and other bacteria from the human microbiome, along with societal trends—such as the easy availability of high-calorie food and the continuing decline in manual labor be enough to tip the balance in favor of a global obesity epidemic? “We don’t know yet whether it’s going to be a major or minor part of the obesity story, ” he says, “but I’m betting it’s not trivial.”
The widespread use of antibiotics is not the only culprit in the unprecedented disruption of the human microbiome in Blaser’s view. Major changes in human ecology over the past century have contributed as well. The dramatic increase in the past few decades in the number of deliveries by cesarean section obviously limits the transfer through the birth canal of those all-important strains from Mom. (In the U.S., more than 30 percent of all newborns are delivered by C-section, and in China—land of one child per couple—the operation is responsible for nearly two thirds of all births to women living in urban areas.) Smaller family sizes throughout the world mean fewer siblings, who are a prime source of microbial material to their younger siblings during early childhood years. Even cleaner water—which has saved the lives of untold millions—exacts a toll on the human microbiome, reducing the variety of bacteria to which we are exposed. The result: more and more people are born into and grow up in an increasingly impoverished microbial world.
A Delicate Balance
As the ongoing studies of B. thetaiotaomicron and H. pylori illustrate, even the most basic questions about what these bacterial species are doing in the body lead to complicated answers. Going one step further and asking how the body responds to the presence of all these foreign cells in its midst introduces even greater complexity. For one thing, the traditional understanding of how the immune system distinguishes the body’s own cells (self) from genetically different cells (nonself) suggests that our molecular defenses should be in a constant state of war against these myriad interlopers. Why the intestines, for example, are not the scene of more pitched battles between human immune cells and the trillions of bacteria present is one of the great, as yet unsolved mysteries of immunology.
The few clues that exist offer tantalizing insights into the balancing act between the microbiome and human immune cells that has taken some 200,000 years to calibrate. Over the eons the immune system has evolved numerous checks and balances that generally prevent it from becoming either too aggressive (and attacking its own tissue) or too lax (and failing to recognize dangerous pathogens). For example, T cells play a major role in recognizing and attacking microbial invaders of the body, as well as unleashing the characteristic swelling, redness and rising temperature of a generalized inflammatory response to infection by a pathogen. But soon after the body ramps up its production of T cells, it also starts producing so-called regulatory T cells, whose principal function seems to be to counteract the activity of the other, pro-inflammatory T cells.
Normally the regulatory T cells swing into action before the pro-inflammatory T cells get too carried away. “The problem is that many of the mechanisms that these proinflammatory T cells use to fight infection—for example, the release of toxic compounds—end up blasting our own tissues,” says Caltech’s Mazmanian. Fortunately, the regulatory T cells produce a protein that restrains the proinflammatory T cells. The net effect is to tamp down inflammation and prevent the immune system from attacking the body’s own cells and tissues. As long as there is a good balance between belligerent T cells and more tolerant regulatory T cells, the body remains in good health.
For years researchers assumed that this system of checks and balances was generated entirely by the immune system. But in yet another example of how little we control our own fate, Mazmanian and others are starting to show that a healthy, mature immune system depends on the constant intervention of beneficial bacteria. “It goes against dogma to think that bacteria would make our immune systems function better,” he says. “But the picture is getting very clear: the driving force behind the features of the immune system are commensals.”
Mazmanian and his team at Caltech have discovered that a common microorganism called Bacteroides fragilis, which lives in some 70 to 80 percent of people, helps to keep the immune system in balance by boosting its anti-inflammatory arm. Their research began with observations that germ-free mice have defective immune systems, with diminished function of regulatory T cells. When the researchers introduced B. fragilis to the mice, the balance between the pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory T cells was restored, and the rodents’ immune systems functioned normally.
But how? In the early 1990s researchers started characterizing several sugar molecules that protrude from the surface of B. fragilis—and by which the immune system recognizes its presence. In 2005 Mazmanian and his colleagues showed that one of these molecules, known as polysaccharide A, promotes maturation of the immune system. Subsequently, his laboratory revealed that polysaccharide A signals the immune system to make more regulatory T cells, which in turn tell the pro-inflammatory T cells to leave the bacterium alone. Strains of B. fragilis that lack polysaccharide A simply do not survive in the mucosal lining of the gut, where immune cells attack the microbe as if it were a pathogen.
In 2011 Mazmanian and his colleagues published a study in Science detailing the full molecular pathway that produces this effect—the first such illumination of a molecular pathway for mutualism between microbe and mammal. “B. fragilis provides us with a profoundly beneficial effect that our own DNA for some reason doesn’t provide,” Mazmanian says. “In many ways, it co-opts our immune system—hijacks it.” Unlike pathogens, however, this hijacking does not inhibit or reduce our immune system performance but rather helps it to function. Other organisms may have similar effects on the immune system, he notes: “This is just the first example. There are, no doubt, many more to come.”
Alas, because of lifestyle changes over the past century, B. fragilis, like H. pylori, is disappearing. “What we’ve done as a society over a short period is completely change our association with the microbial world,” Mazmanian says. “In our efforts to distance ourselves from disease-causing infectious agents, we have probably also changed our associations with beneficial organisms. Our intentions are good, but there’s a price to pay.”
In the case of B. fragilis, the price may be a significant increase in the number of autoimmune disorders. Without polysaccharide A signaling the immune system to churn out more regulatory T cells, the belligerent T cells begin attacking everything in sight—including the body’s own tissues. Mazmanian contends that the recent sevenfold to eightfold increase in rates of autoimmune disorders such as Crohn’s disease, type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis is related to the decline in beneficial microbes. “All these diseases have both a genetic component and an environmental component,” Mazmanian says. “I believe that the environmental component is microbiotic and that the changes are affecting our immune system.” The microbial shift that comes with changes in how we live—including a decrease in B. fragilis and other anti-inflammatory microbes—results in the underdevelopment of regulatory T cells. In people who have a genetic susceptibility, this deviation may lead to autoimmunity and other disorders. Or at least that is the hypothesis. At this stage in the research, the correlations in humans between lower microbial infections and increased rates of immune disease are only that—correlations. Just as with the obesity issue, teasing apart cause and effect can be difficult. Either the loss of humanity’s indigenous bugs have forced rates of autoimmune diseases and obesity to shoot up or the increasing levels of autoimmunity and obesity have created an unfavorable climate for these native bugs. Mazmanian is convinced that the former is true—that changes in the intestinal microbiome are contributing significantly to rising rates of immune disorders. Yet “the burden of proof is on us, the scientists, to take these correlations and prove that there is cause and effect by deciphering the mechanisms underlying them,” Mazmanian says. “That is the future of our work.”
By Jennifer Ackerman
More to Explore:
Who Are We? Indigenous Microbes and the Ecology of Human Diseases. Martin J. Blaster in EMBO Reports, Vol. 7, No. 10, pages 956–960; October 2006. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1618379
A Human Gut Microbial Gene Catalogue Established by Metagenomic Sequencing. Junjie Qin et al. in Nature, Vol. 464, pages 59–65; March 4, 2010.
Has the Microbiota Played a Critical Role in the Evolution of the Adaptive Immune System? Yun Kyung Lee and Sarkis K. Mazmanian in Science, Vol. 330, pages 1768–1773; December 24, 2010. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3159383
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If you’d like to find out where I originally sourced this Scientific American articles from, please click here.
August 25, 2012
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Just over a month ago, around my birthday, I saw this rather interesting film that was airing on the BBC’s iPlayer… The main reason it caught my eye was because I was looking to buy a DVD copy an old blues documentary that Martin Scorsese had directed that traced the origins of blues music from the birth of the Delta-blues to the slave-experience and finally to Africa, which was entitled “The Blues“. However, as so often seems to be the case when on-line recently, I got slightly side tracked when I noticed a somewhat odd search result place near the top of the Google list… It read something like, “Scorsese – Executive Producer – Surviving Progress”.
Obviously I’m quite a big fan of Scorsese’s past works, especially his recent foray into the world of 3D animation that was highlighted with his loveable film “Hugo”, a heart felt story of a young orphaned lad who looks after the Gare Montparnasse’s clocks in Paris, ensuring they’re all well maintained and running on time. Anything that he decides/chooses to get involved in, for me, is a curiosity I rarely fail to miss… Mainly because they’re usually so well crafted and brilliantly realised. However, this one particular listing about “Survivng Progess” I had not heard anything about: neither in the tabloids nor on-line. Why that should be, I have no idea, especially as it is something I’ve broached the subject of here within this website before. So, as it was airing on the BBC’s iPlayer, I just couldn’t turn down a ‘free’ viewing of something Scorsese had chosen to get involved in when the chance arose.
To be fair, it wasn’t at all what I was expecting. Partly because I didn’t read the introduction to it on the BBC’s website… But predominantly because I had clocked the 1 hour and 22 minute run time and, so, automatically expected it to be a feature length fictional movie/film of some kind or another (oh, damnable presumptions)… However, from the very outset, I have to say, with it’s dulcet musical score and languid, ponderous content, it left me feeling somewhat engrossed and uneasy all at the same time, almost as though I was witnessing my own death and, yet, was still fully aware of all that going on around me.
During the course of the film, it touchingly brought an obvious – and yet, of late, once again much overlooked question – to the forefront of my thoughts… As a race of living beings, would WE actually make it through the coming hard times, most of which are predominantly and presently of our own making… ? Could we make sufficient changes right now to allow a decent bit of progress to be made on the path to cultivating a more balanced way of life within nature’s cradle of a planetary ecosystem… ?
Alfred Montapert, the Amercian author who wrote the “The Supreme Philosophy of Man: The Laws of Life”, is quoted as once saying “Don’t confuse motion and progress. A rocking horse keeps moving but doesn’t make any progress.” Certainly I see a lot of motion going on all around me in daily life… And whenever I’ve asked whether it’s really a holistic, healthy type of progress, most people I meet say that it will do for the time being… But, my instinct keeps nudging me, and I can’t help asking “Really? Is it really good enough for the time being?” Certainly I’m still not convinced by most people’s appraisal of the situation… And it seems, as this film suggests, the answer is a lot more astounding that most could (or would) dare to imagine…
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Documentary telling the double-edged story of the grave risks we pose to our own survival in the name of progress. With rich imagery the film connects financial collapse, growing inequality and global oligarchy with the sustainability of mankind itself. The film explores how we are repeatedly destroyed by ‘progress traps’ – alluring technologies which serve immediate need but rob us of our long term future. Featuring contributions from those at the forefront of evolutionary thinking such as Stephen Hawking and economic historian Michael Hudson. With Martin Scorsese as executive producer, the film leaves us with a challenge – to prove that civilisation and survival is not the biggest progress trap of them all.
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To find out where I originally saw this movie, please visit the BBC’s website by clicking here.
OR to visit the official website for the film, which should be released on DVD sometime this October, please click here.
January 15, 2012
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I’ve written a little bit before on what life actually is… On how ‘we’, as human beings, are beginning to figure out how life, as we know it, arose from a sea of seemingly non-living molecules… And we’ve even seen how the fine line between everyday non-living bio-chemistry mimics and resembles – with amazing analogy – the living systems that we call ecosystems… That we call our “selves”. I’ve even shown – with the help of a lecture given by Dr Bruce Lipton – how the complex interaction of molecules (all of which are made up from the numerous atomic elements, which are really nothing more than star dust) gives rise an orchestration of consciousness that allows all of us i.e. each and every type of living organism alive here on Earth today, to perceive the world around us, in some manner or another… To interact with the ever changing environment that continually shifts around our bodies and beings, so that we can survive and slowly modify ourselves and our habits – through the process of Natural Selection – to its ever changing rhythms and challenges, thus ensuring our survival.
Well… If you got all of that, then your laughing and you’re well on your way to finding out what the notion of your ‘self‘ i.e. the mind/brain/body/environmental continuum, is really all about, as well as how these supposed ‘selves’ are all entangled into a long chainmail of causes and effects, a process that, ultimately, relates all of us to one another (no matter how far away everyone might seem at any given moment to our own self centred points of view), so that we come together as ‘One.’ As Kalu Rinpoche pointed out before in “Karma, Interdependence and Emptiness“, “When you hear the sound of a bell, ask yourself, ‘What makes the sound?’” And so, just as with the notion of your “self”, perhaps we should ask, “When I am conscious… What makes me conscious?” When we start to see all the details compiled into the totality of the whole picture (if we ever truly can do so in one lifetime, simply due to the sheer magnitude of parts), along with how interdependent they all are on one another, then the notion of “self” blurs into the surrounding environmental events that gave rise to everything around us, as well as us. As we are a part it all, reliant on every detail being exactly the way it was – and presently is – then perhaps we really are a part of “Nature” itself? Perhaps this is what Spinoza wrote about when he discussed the notion of “God, or Nature”?
Either way, I’d like to add one more TED Talk – to the many that have already found their way onto the many pages of this website – so as to enhance the scientific facts and findings that are slowly illuminating part of the essence of what we all really are – complex organic molecular environments that have become “self” aware… And, thus, I would like to present this talk given by the eminent biomedical animator (I know, what a kewl job title) Drew Berry, who’s scientifically accurate and aesthetically rich visualizations are elucidating cellular and molecular processes for a wide range of audiences, both in the scientific community and outside it.
But just before hand… I’d like you to ask your “self”… “Am I really a “living” being? One that is undeniably distinct and truly separate from all the other animals who reside here on planet Earth with us? Or am “I” just a complex orchestration of inter-reactive organic molecules/chemicals/’star dust’ that has evolved over time into ever increasingly complex manifestations, so as to eventually become “self” aware?”
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Drew Berry: Animations Of Unseeable Biology
We have no ways to directly observe molecules and what they do — Drew Berry wants to change that. At TEDxSydney he shows his scientifically accurate (and entertaining!) animations that help researchers see unseeable processes within our own cells.
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To find out where I sourced this video from, please click here.
And to find out more about Drew Berry, please click here.
OR to learn more about TED, please visit their website by clicking here.
March 30, 2011
May all beings be happy and create the causes of happiness.
May they all be free from suffering and from creating the causes of suffering.
May they all find that noble happiness which can never be tainted by suffering.
May they attain universal, impartial compassion, beyond worldly bias towards friends and enemies.
February 20, 2011
What can I say… I’ve been away for a while… A wee while… Four months to be exact… And it’s the first blog of the new year… So a big happy new year to anyone reading this.
Yes, I know… I’ve been slack on the blog front recently. No excuses for it really… Other than the endless days that I’ve been spending down at the farm… Ah… Yes… That’s the reason I haven’t been inside much recently. And that’s why I haven’t been in front of a computer screen as much as I usually like to… Not to mention it’s the reason why I find my comfort zone diminishing to an almost non existent pin prick of a bubble’s ‘pop’ reminder that change and uncertainty, no matter how big or small, is going on beyond all my deluded, insulated ideals of settled, homely stability… Yes… That’s right… I am presently engaged in setting up an organic farm somewhere in the South East of the UK. Not telling anyone quite yet where exactly… Not for the moment, at least… And I’m breaking those old chains of die hard habits i.e. soft living, staying in when it rains or snows, etc… By putting on my wellies and getting my hands, arms, face and clothes completely mud ridden and down right dirty… So, I’m now doing what I’ve been actually ‘preaching’ (although I don’t really like that word much, another doesn’t come to mind) about in this blog. And boy, let me tell you, it’s blooming hard work. Anyway… More on that to follow soon.
Basically, the reason why I find myself here in front of the computer once again… Is that I recently read this article, which was taken from a transcript of a speech by the late (or early, depending on which way you look at his input here on Earth) Douglas Adams, while he was talking at Digital Biota 2… And it resonated deeply in my being… Reminding me about why I was doing what I was doing… Not to mention how clunky my writing is in comparison to the sheer wall of towering genius that Adams was… I cower in shame! LOL!
Anyway… I’m tired. And so I’ll leave it here… For those of of you who have been following these blogs here at polynomial.me.uk, you will no doubt see the connection to all my previous musings…
So here’s the intro…
In honour of Douglas’ memory, Biota.org presents the transcript of his speech at Digital Biota 2, held at Magdelene College Cambridge, in September 1998. I would like to thank Steve Grand for providing this to us. Douglas presented this “off the cuff” which only magifies his true genius in our eyes.
by Bruce Damer
And here’s the transcript of Adams’ speech/debate…
Is There An Artificial God?
This was originally billed as a debate only because I was a bit anxious coming here. I didn’t think I was going to have time to prepare anything and also, in a room full of such luminaries, I thought ‘what could I, as an amateur, possibly have to say’? So I thought I would settle for a debate. But after having been here for a couple of days, I realised you’re just a bunch of guys! It’s been rife with ideas and I’ve had so many myself through talking with and listening to people that I’d thought what I’d do was stand up and have an argument and debate with myself. I’ll talk for a while and hope sufficiently to provoke and inflame opinion that there’ll be an outburst of chair- throwing at the end.
Before I embark on what I want to try and tackle, may I warn you that things may get a little bit lost from time to time, because there’s a lot of stuff that’s just come in from what we’ve been hearing today, so if I occasionally sort of go… I was telling somebody earlier today that I have a four-year-old daughter and was very, very interested watching her face when she was in her first 2 or 3 weeks of life and suddenly realising what nobody would have realised in previous ages—she was rebooting!
I just want to mention one thing, which is completely meaningless, but I am terribly proud of—I was born in Cambridge in 1952 and my initials are D N A!
The topic I want to introduce to you this evening, the subject of the debate that we are about to sort of not have, is a slightly facetious one (you’ll be surprised to hear, but we’ll see where we go with it)—“Is there an Artificial God?” I’m sure most of the people in this room will share the same view, but even as an out-and-out atheist one can’t help noticing that the rôle of a god has had an enormously profound impact on human history over many, many centuries. It’s very interesting to figure out where this came from and what, in the modern scientific world we sometimes hope against hope that we live in, it actually means.
I was thinking about this earlier today when Larry Yaeger was talking about ‘what is life?’ and mentioned at the end something I didn’t know, about a special field of handwriting recognition. The following strange thought went through my mind: that trying to figure out what is life and what isn’t and where the boundary is has an interesting relationship with how you recognise handwriting. We all know, when presented with any particular entity, whether it’s a bit of mould from the fridge or whatever; we instinctively know when something is an example of life and when it isn’t. But it turns out to be tremendously hard exactly to define it. I remember once, a long time ago, needing a definition of life for a speech I was giving. Assuming there was a simple one and looking around the Internet, I was astonished at how diverse the definitions were and how very, very detailed each one had to be in order to include ‘this’ but not include ‘that’. If you think about it, a collection that includes a fruit fly and Richard Dawkins and the Great Barrier Reef is an awkward set of objects to try and compare. When we try and figure out what the rules are that we are looking for, trying to find a rule that’s self-evidently true, that turns out to be very, very hard.
Compare this with the business of recognising whether something is an A or a B or a C. It’s a similar kind of process, but it’s also a very, very different process, because you may say of something that you’re ‘not quite certain whether it counts as life or not life, it’s kind of there on the edge isn’t it, it’s probably a very low example of what you might call life, it’s maybe just about alive or maybe it isn’t’. Or maybe you might say about something that’s an example of Digital life, ‘does that count as being alive?’ Is it something, to coin someone’s earlier phrase, that’ll go squish if you step on it? Think about the controversial Gaia hypothesis; people say ‘is the planet alive?’, ‘is the ecosphere alive or not?’ In the end it depends on how you define such things.
Compare that with handwriting recognition. In the end you are trying to say “is this an A or is it a B?” People write As and Bs in many different ways; floridly, sloppily or whatever. It’s no good saying ‘well, it’s sort of A-ish but there’s a bit of B in there’, because you can’t write the word ‘apple’ with such a thing. It is either an A or a B. How do you judge? If you’re doing handwriting recognition, what you are trying to do is not to assess the relative degrees of A-ness or B-ness of the letter, but trying to define the intention of the person who wrote it. It’s very clear in the end—is it an A or a B?—ah! it’s an A, because the person writing it was writing the word apple and that’s clearly what it means. So, in the end, in the absence of an intentional creator, you cannot say what life is, because it simply depends on what set of definitions you include in your overall definition. Without a god, life is only a matter of opinion.
I want to pick up on a few other things that came around today. I was fascinated by Larry (again), talking about tautology, because there’s an argument that I remember being stumped by once, to which I couldn’t come up with a reply, because I was so puzzled by the challenge and couldn’t quite figure it out. A guy said to me, ‘yes, but the whole theory of evolution is based on a tautology: that which survives, survives’ This is tautological, therefore it doesn’t mean anything. I thought about that for a while and it finally occurred to me that a tautology is something that if it means nothing, not only that no information has gone into it but that no consequence has come out of it. So, we may have accidentally stumbled upon the ultimate answer; it’s the only thing, the only force, arguably the most powerful of which we are aware, which requires no other input, no other support from any other place, is self evident, hence tautological, but nevertheless astonishingly powerful in its effects. It’s hard to find anything that corresponds to that and I therefore put it at the beginning of one of my books. I reduced it to what I thought were the bare essentials, which are very similar to the ones you came up with earlier, which were “anything that happens happens, anything that in happening causes something else to happen causes something else to happen and anything that in happening causes itself to happen again, happens again”. In fact you don’t even need the second two because they flow from the first one, which is self-evident and there’s nothing else you need to say; everything else flows from that. So, I think we have in our grasp here a fundamental, ultimate truth, against which there is no gain-saying. It was spotted by the guy who said this is a tautology. Yes, it is, but it’s a unique tautology in that it requires no information to go in but an infinite amount of information comes out of it. So I think that it is arguably therefore the prime cause of everything in the Universe. Big claim, but I feel I’m talking to a sympathetic audience.
Where does the idea of God come from? Well, I think we have a very skewed point of view on an awful lot of things, but let’s try and see where our point of view comes from. Imagine early man. Early man is, like everything else, an evolved creature and he finds himself in a world that he’s begun to take a little charge of; he’s begun to be a tool-maker, a changer of his environment with the tools that he’s made and he makes tools, when he does, in order to make changes in his environment. To give an example of the way man operates compared to other animals, consider speciation, which, as we know, tends to occur when a small group of animals gets separated from the rest of the herd by some geological upheaval, population pressure, food shortage or whatever and finds itself in a new environment with maybe something different going on. Take a very simple example; maybe a bunch of animals suddenly finds itself in a place where the weather is rather colder. We know that in a few generations those genes which favour a thicker coat will have come to the fore and we’ll come and we’ll find that the animals have now got thicker coats. Early man, who’s a tool maker, doesn’t have to do this: he can inhabit an extraordinarily wide range of habitats on earth, from tundra to the Gobi Desert—he even manages to live in New York for heaven’s sake—and the reason is that when he arrives in a new environment he doesn’t have to wait for several generations; if he arrives in a colder environment and sees an animal that has those genes which favour a thicker coat, he says “I’ll have it off him”. Tools have enabled us to think intentionally, to make things and to do things to create a world that fits us better. Now imagine an early man surveying his surroundings at the end of a happy day’s tool making. He looks around and he sees a world which pleases him mightily: behind him are mountains with caves in—mountains are great because you can go and hide in the caves and you are out of the rain and the bears can’t get you; in front of him there’s the forest—it’s got nuts and berries and delicious food; there’s a stream going by, which is full of water—water’s delicious to drink, you can float your boats in it and do all sorts of stuff with it; here’s cousin Ug and he’s caught a mammoth—mammoth’s are great, you can eat them, you can wear their coats, you can use their bones to create weapons to catch other mammoths. I mean this is a great world, it’s fantastic. But our early man has a moment to reflect and he thinks to himself, ‘well, this is an interesting world that I find myself in’ and then he asks himself a very treacherous question, a question which is totally meaningless and fallacious, but only comes about because of the nature of the sort of person he is, the sort of person he has evolved into and the sort of person who has thrived because he thinks this particular way. Man the maker looks at his world and says ‘So who made this then?’ Who made this? — you can see why it’s a treacherous question. Early man thinks, ‘Well, because there’s only one sort of being I know about who makes things, whoever made all this must therefore be a much bigger, much more powerful and necessarily invisible, one of me and because I tend to be the strong one who does all the stuff, he’s probably male’. And so we have the idea of a god. Then, because when we make things we do it with the intention of doing something with them, early man asks himself , ‘If he made it, what did he make it for?’ Now the real trap springs, because early man is thinking, ‘This world fits me very well. Here are all these things that support me and feed me and look after me; yes, this world fits me nicely’ and he reaches the inescapable conclusion that whoever made it, made it for him.
This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in—an interesting hole I find myself in—fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for. We all know that at some point in the future the Universe will come to an end and at some other point, considerably in advance from that but still not immediately pressing, the sun will explode. We feel there’s plenty of time to worry about that, but on the other hand that’s a very dangerous thing to say. Look at what’s supposed to be going to happen on the 1st of January 2000—let’s not pretend that we didn’t have a warning that the century was going to end! I think that we need to take a larger perspective on who we are and what we are doing here if we are going to survive in the long term.
There are some oddities in the perspective with which we see the world. The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is obviously some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be, but we have done various things over intellectual history to slowly correct some of our misapprehensions. Curiously enough, quite a lot of these have come from sand, so let’s talk about the four ages of sand.
From sand we make glass, from glass we make lenses and from lenses we make telescopes. When the great early astronomers, Copernicus, Gallileo and others turned their telescopes on the heavens and discovered that the Universe was an astonishingly different place than we expected and that, far from the world being most of the Universe, with just a few little bright lights going around it, it turned out—and this took a long, long, long time to sink in—that it is just one tiny little speck going round a little nuclear fireball, which is one of millions and millions and millions that make up this particular galaxy and our galaxy is one of millions or billions that make up the Universe and that then we are also faced with the possibility that there may be billions of universes, that applied a little bit of a corrective to the perspective that the Universe was ours.
I rather love that notion and, as I was discussing with someone earlier today, there’s a book I thoroughly enjoyed recently by David Deutsch, who is an advocate of the multiple universe view of the Universe, called ‘The Fabric of Reality’, in which he explores the notion of a quantum multiple universe view of the Universe. This came from the famous wave particle dichotomy about the behaviour of light—that you couldn’t measure it as a wave when it behaves as a wave, or as a particle when it behaves as a particle. How does this come to be? David Deutsch points out that if you imagine that our Universe is simply one layer and that there is an infinite multiplicity of universes spreading out on either side, not only does it solve the problem, but the problem simply goes away. This is exactly how you expect light to behave under those circumstances. Quantum mechanics has claims to be predicated on the notion that the Universe behaves as if there was a multiplicity of universes, but it rather strains our credulity to think that there actually would be.
This goes straight back to Gallileo and the Vatican. In fact, what the Vatican said to Gallileo was, “We don’t dispute your readings, we just dispute the explanation you put on them. It’s all very well for you to say that the planets sort of do that as they go round and it is as if we were a planet and those planets were all going round the sun; it’s alright to say it’s as if that were happening, but you’re not allowed to say that’s what is happening, because we have a total lockhold on universal truth and also it simply strains our personal credulity”. Just so, I think that the idea that there are multiple universes currently strains our credulity but it may well be that it’s simply one more strain that we have to learn to live with, just as we’ve had to learn to live with a whole bunch of them in the past.
The other thing that comes out of that vision of the Universe is that it turns out to be composed almost entirely and rather worryingly, of nothing. Wherever you look there is nothing, with occasional tiny, tiny little specks of rock or light. But nevertheless, by watching the way these tiny little specks behave in the vast nothingness, we begin to divine certain principles, certain laws, like gravity and so forth. So that was, if you like, the macroscopic view of the universe, which came from the first age of sand.
The next age of sand is the microscopic one. We put glass lenses into microscopes and started to look down at the microscopic view of the Universe. Then we began to understand that when we get down to the sub-atomic level, the solid world we live in also consists, again rather worryingly, of almost nothing and that wherever we do find something it turns out not to be actually something, but only the probability that there may be something there.
One way or another, this is a deeply misleading Universe. Wherever we look it’s beginning to be extremely alarming and extremely upsetting to our sense of who we are—great, strapping, physical people living in a Universe that exists almost entirely for us—that it just isn’t the case. At this point we are still divining from this all sorts of fundamental principles, recognising the way that gravity works, the way that strong and weak nuclear forces work, recognising the nature of matter, the nature of particles and so on, but having got those fundamentals, we’re still not very good at figuring out how it works, because the maths is really rather tricky. So, we tend to come up with almost a clockwork view of the way it all works, because that’s the best our maths can manage. I don’t mean in any way to disparage Newton, because I guess he was the first person who saw that there were principles at work that were different from anything we actually saw around us. His first law of motion—that something will remain in its position of either rest or motion until some other force works on it—is something that none of us, living in a gravity well, in a gas envelope, had ever seen, because everything we move comes to a halt. It was only through very, very careful watching and observing and measuring and divining the principles underlying what we could all see happening that he came up with the principles that we all know and recognise as being the laws of motion, but nevertheless it is by modern terms, still a somewhat clockwork view of the Universe. As I say, I don’t mean that to sound disparaging in any way at all, because his achievements, as we all know, were absolutely monumental, but it still kind of doesn’t make sense to us.
Now there are all sorts of entities we are also aware of, as well as particles, forces, tables, chairs, rocks and so on, that are almost invisible to science; almost invisible, because science has almost nothing to say about them whatsoever. I’m talking about dogs and cats and cows and each other. We living things are, so far, beyond the purview of anything science can actually say, almost beyond even recognising ourselves as things that science might be expected to have something to say about.
I can imagine Newton sitting down and working out his laws of motion and figuring out the way the Universe works and with him, a cat wandering around. The reason we had no idea how cats worked was because, since Newton, we had proceeded by the very simple principle that essentially, to see how things work, we took them apart. If you try and take a cat apart to see how it works, the first thing you have in your hands is a non-working cat. Life is a level of complexity that almost lies outside our vision; is so far beyond anything we have any means of understanding that we just think of it as a different class of object, a different class of matter; ‘life’, something that had a mysterious essence about it, was god given—and that’s the only explanation we had. The bombshell comes in 1859 when Darwin publishes ‘On the Origin of Species’. It takes a long time before we really get to grips with this and begin to understand it, because not only does it seem incredible and thoroughly demeaning to us, but it’s yet another shock to our system to discover that not only are we not the centre of the Universe and we’re not made of anything, but we started out as some kind of slime and got to where we are via being a monkey. It just doesn’t read well. But also, we have no opportunity to see this stuff at work. In a sense Darwin was like Newton, in that he was the first person to see underlying principles, that really were not at all obvious, from the everyday world in which he lived. We had to think very hard to understand the nature of what was happening around us and we had no clear, obvious everyday examples of evolution to point to. Even today that persists as a slightly tricky problem if you’re trying to persuade somebody who doesn’t believe in all this evolution stuff and wants you to show him an example—they are hard to find in terms of everyday observation.
So we come to the third age of sand. In the third age of sand we discover something else we can make out of sand—silicon. We make the silicon chip—and suddenly, what opens up to us is a Universe not of fundamental particles and fundamental forces, but of the things that were missing in that picture that told us how they work; what the silicon chip revealed to us was the process. The silicon chip enables us to do mathematics tremendously fast, to model the, as it turns out, very very simple processes that are analogous to life in terms of their simplicity; iteration, looping, branching, the feedback loop which lies at the heart of everything you do on a computer and at the heart of everything that happens in evolution—that is, the output stage of one generation becomes the input stage of the next. Suddenly we have a working model, not for a while because early machines are terribly slow and clunky, but gradually we accumulate a working model of this thing that previously we could only guess at or deduce—and you had to be a pretty sharp and a pretty clear thinker even to divine it happening when it was far from obvious and indeed counter-intuitive, particularly to as proud a species as we.
The computer forms a third age of perspective, because suddenly it enables us to see how life works. Now that is an extraordinarily important point because it becomes self-evident that life, that all forms of complexity, do not flow downwards, they flow upwards and there’s a whole grammar that anybody who is used to using computers is now familiar with, which means that evolution is no longer a particular thing, because anybody who’s ever looked at the way a computer program works, knows that very, very simple iterative pieces of code, each line of which is tremendously straightforward, give rise to enormously complex phenomena in a computer—and by enormously complex phenomena, I mean a word processing program just as much as I mean Tierra or Creatures.
I can remember the first time I ever read a programming manual, many many years ago. I’d first started to encounter computers about 1983 and I wanted to know a little bit more about them, so I decided to learn something about programming. I bought a C manual and I read through the first two or three chapters, which took me about a week. At the end it said ‘Congratulations, you have now written the letter A on the screen!’ I thought, ‘Well, I must have misunderstood something here, because it was a huge, huge amount of work to do that, so what if I now want to write a B?’ The process of programming, the speed and the means by which enormous simplicity gives rise to enormously complex results, was not part of my mental grammar at that point. It is now—and it is increasingly part of all our mental grammars, because we are used to the way computers work.
So, suddenly, evolution ceases to be such a real problem to get hold of. It’s rather like this: imagine, if you will, the following scenario. One Tuesday, a person is spotted in a street in London, doing something criminal. Two detectives are investigating, trying to work out what happened. One of them is a 20th Century detective and the other, by the marvels of science fiction, is a 19th Century detective. The problem is this: the person who was clearly seen and identified on the street in London on Tuesday was seen by someone else, an equally reliable witness, on the street in Santa Fe on the same Tuesday—how could that possibly be? The 19th Century detective could only think it was by some sort of magical intervention. Now the 20th Century detective may not be able to say, “He took BA flight this and then United flight that”—he may not be able to figure out exactly which way he did it, or by which route he travelled, but it’s not a problem. It doesn’t bother him; he just says, ‘He got there by plane. I don’t know which plane and it may be a little tricky to find out, but there’s no essential mystery.’ We’re used to the idea of jet travel. We don’t know whether the criminal flew BA 178, or UA270, or whatever, but we know roughly how it was done. I suspect that as we become more and more conversant with the role a computer plays and the way in which the computer models the process of enormously simple elements giving rise to enormously complex results, then the idea of life being an emergent phenomenon will become easier and easier to swallow. We may never know precisely what steps life took in the very early stages of this planet, but it’s not a mystery.
So what we have arrived at here—and although the first shock wave of this arrival was in 1859, it’s really the arrival of the computer that demonstrates it unarguably to us—is ‘Is there really a Universe that is not designed from the top downwards but from the bottom upwards? Can complexity emerge from lower levels of simplicity?’ It has always struck me as being bizarre that the idea of God as a creator was considered sufficient explanation for the complexity we see around us, because it simply doesn’t explain where he came from. If we imagine a designer, that implies a design and that therefore each thing he designs or causes to be designed is a level simpler than him or her, then you have to ask ‘What is the level above the designer?’ There is one peculiar model of the Universe that has turtles all the way down, but here we have gods all the way up. It really isn’t a very good answer, but a bottom-up solution, on the other hand, which rests on the incredibly powerful tautology of anything that happens, happens, clearly gives you a very simple and powerful answer that needs no other explanation whatsoever.
But here’s the interesting thing. I said I wanted to ask ‘Is there an artificial god?’ and this is where I want to address the question of why the idea of a god is so persuasive. I’ve already explained where I feel this kind of illusion comes from in the first place; it comes from a falseness in our perspective, because we are not taking into account that we are evolved beings, beings who have evolved into a particular landscape, into a particular environment with a particular set of skills and views of the world that have enabled us to survive and thrive rather successfully. But there seems to be an even more powerful idea than that, and this is the idea I want to propose, which is that the spot at the top of the pyramid that we previously said was whence everything flowed, may not actually be vacant just because we say the flow doesn’t go that way.
Let me explain what I mean by this. We have created in the world in which we live all kinds of things; we have changed our world in all kinds of ways. That’s very very clear. We have built the room we’re in and we’ve built all sorts of complex stuff, like computers and so on, but we’ve also constructed all kinds of fictitious entities that are enormously powerful. So do we say, ‘That’s a bad idea; it’s stupid—we should simply get rid of it?’ Well, here’s another fictitious entity—money. Money is a completely fictitious entity, but it’s very powerful in our world; we each have wallets, which have got notes in them, but what can those notes do? You can’t breed them, you can’t stir fry them, you can’t live in them, there’s absolutely nothing you can do with them that’s any use, other than exchange them with each other—and as soon as we exchange them with each other all sots of powerful things happen, because it’s a fiction that we’ve all subscribed to. We don’t think this is wrong or right, good or bad; but the thing is that if money vanished the entire co-operative structure that we have would implode, but if we were all to vanish, money would simply vanish too. Money has no meaning outside ourselves, it is something that we have created that has a powerful shaping effect on the world, because its something we all subscribe to.
I would like somebody to write an evolutionary history of religion, because the way in which it has developed seems to me to show all kinds of evolutionary strategies. Think of the arms races that go on between one or two animals living the same environment. For example the race between the Amazonian manatee and a particular type of reed that it eats. The more of the reed the manatee eats, the more the reed develops silica in its cells to attack the teeth of the manatee and the more silica in the reed, the more manatee’s teeth get bigger and stronger. One side does one thing and the other counters it. As we know, throughout evolution and history arms races are something that drive evolution in the most powerful ways and in the world of ideas you can see similar kinds of things happening.
Now, the invention of the scientific method and science is, I’m sure we’ll all agree, the most powerful intellectual idea, the most powerful framework for thinking and investigating and understanding and challenging the world around us that there is, and that it rests on the premise that any idea is there to be attacked and if it withstands the attack then it lives to fight another day and if it doesn’t withstand the attack then down it goes. Religion doesn’t seem to work like that; it has certain ideas at the heart of it which we call sacred or holy or whatever. That’s an idea we’re so familiar with, whether we subscribe to it or not, that it’s kind of odd to think what it actually means, because really what it means is ‘Here is an idea or a notion that you’re not allowed to say anything bad about; you’re just not. Why not? — because you’re not!’ If somebody votes for a party that you don’t agree with, you’re free to argue about it as much as you like; everybody will have an argument but nobody feels aggrieved by it. If somebody thinks taxes should go up or down you are free to have an argument about it, but on the other hand if somebody says ‘I mustn’t move a light switch on a Saturday’, you say, ‘Fine, I respect that’. The odd thing is, even as I am saying that I am thinking ‘Is there an Orthodox Jew here who is going to be offended by the fact that I just said that?’ but I wouldn’t have thought ‘Maybe there’s somebody from the left wing or somebody from the right wing or somebody who subscribes to this view or the other in economics’ when I was making the other points. I just think ‘Fine, we have different opinions’. But, the moment I say something that has something to do with somebody’s (I’m going to stick my neck out here and say irrational) beliefs, then we all become terribly protective and terribly defensive and say ‘No, we don’t attack that; that’s an irrational belief but no, we respect it’.
It’s rather like, if you think back in terms of animal evolution, an animal that’s grown an incredible carapace around it, such as a tortoise—that’s a great survival strategy because nothing can get through it; or maybe like a poisonous fish that nothing will come close to, which therefore thrives by keeping away any challenges to what it is it is. In the case of an idea, if we think ‘Here is an idea that is protected by holiness or sanctity’, what does it mean? Why should it be that it’s perfectly legitimate to support the Labour party or the Conservative party, Republicans or Democrats, this model of economics versus that, Macintosh instead of Windows, but to have an opinion about how the Universe began, about who created the Universe, no, that’s holy? What does that mean? Why do we ring-fence that for any other reason other than that we’ve just got used to doing so? There’s no other reason at all, it’s just one of those things that crept into being and once that loop gets going it’s very, very powerful. So, we are used to not challenging religious ideas but it’s very interesting how much of a furore Richard creates when he does it! Everybody gets absolutely frantic about it because you’re not allowed to say these things. Yet when you look at it rationally there is no reason why those ideas shouldn’t be as open to debate as any other, except that we have agreed somehow between us that they shouldn’t be.
There’s a very interesting book—I don’t know if anybody here’s read it—called ‘Man on Earth’ by an anthropologist who use to be at Cambridge, called John Reader, in which he describes the way that… I’m going to back up a little bit and tell you about the whole book. It’s a series of studies of different cultures in the world that have developed within somewhat isolated circumstances, either on islands or in a mountain valley or wherever, so it’s possible to treat them to a certain extent as a test-tube case. You see therefore exactly the degree to which their environment and their immediate circumstances has affected the way in which their culture has arisen. It’s a fascinating series of studies. The one I have in mind at the moment is one that describes the culture and economy of Bali, which is a small, very crowded island that subsists on rice. Now, rice is an incredibly efficient food and you can grow an awful lot in a relatively small space, but it’s hugely labour intensive and requires a lot of very, very precise co-operation amongst the people there, particularly when you have a large population on a small island needing to bring its harvest in. People now looking at the way in which rice agriculture works in Bali are rather puzzled by it because it is intensely religious. The society of Bali is such that religion permeates every single aspect of it and everybody in that culture is very, very carefully defined in terms of who they are, what their status is and what their role in life is. It’s all defined by the church; they have very peculiar calendars and a very peculiar set of customs and rituals, which are precisely defined and, oddly enough, they are fantastically good at being very, very productive with their rice harvest. In the 70s, people came in and noticed that the rice harvest was determined by the temple calendar. It seemed to be totally nonsensical, so they said, ‘Get rid of all this, we can help you make your rice harvest much, much more productive than even you’re, very successfully, doing at the moment. Use these pesticides, use this calendar, do this, that and the other’. So they started and for two or three years the rice production went up enormously, but the whole predator/prey/pest balance went completely out of kilter. Very shortly, the rice harvest plummeted again and the Balinese said, ‘Screw it, we’re going back to the temple calendar!’ and they reinstated what was there before and it all worked again absolutely perfectly. It’s all very well to say that basing the rice harvest on something as irrational and meaningless as a religion is stupid—they should be able to work it out more logically than that, but they might just as well say to us, ‘Your culture and society works on the basis of money and that’s a fiction, so why don’t you get rid of it and just co-operate with each other’—we know it’s not going to work!
So, there is a sense in which we build meta-systems above ourselves to fill in the space that we previously populated with an entity that was supposed to be the intentional designer, the creator (even though there isn’t one) and because we—I don’t necessarily mean we in this room, but we as a species—design and create one and then allow ourselves to behave as if there was one, all sorts of things begin to happen that otherwise wouldn’t happen.
Let me try and illustrate what I mean by something else. This is very speculative; I’m really going out on a limb here, because it’s something I know nothing about whatsoever, so think of this more as a thought experiment than a real explanation of something. I want to talk about Feng Shui, which is something I know very little about, but there’s been a lot of talk about it recently in terms of figuring out how a building should be designed, built, situated, decorated and so on. Apparently, we need to think about the building being inhabited by dragons and look at it in terms of how a dragon would move around it. So, if a dragon wouldn’t be happy in the house, you have to put a red fish bowl here or a window there. This sounds like complete and utter nonsense, because anything involving dragons must be nonsense—there aren’t any dragons, so any theory based on how dragons behave is nonsense. What are these silly people doing, imagining that dragons can tell you how to build your house? Nevertheless, it occurs to me if you disregard for a moment the explanation that’s actually offered for it, it may be there is something interesting going on that goes like this: we all know from buildings that we’ve lived in, worked in, been in or stayed in, that some are more comfortable, more pleasant and more agreeable to live in than others. We haven’t had a real way of quantifying this, but in this century we’ve had an awful lot of architects who think they know how to do it, so we’ve had the horrible idea of the house as a machine for living in, we’ve had Mies van der Roe and others putting up glass stumps and strangely shaped things that are supposed to form some theory or other. It’s all carefully engineered, but nonetheless, their buildings are not actually very nice to live in. An awful lot of theory has been poured into this, but if you sit and work with an architect (and I’ve been through that stressful time, as I’m sure a lot of people have) then when you are trying to figure out how a room should work you’re trying to integrate all kinds of things about lighting, about angles, about how people move and how people live—and an awful lot of other things you don’t know about that get left out. You don’t know what importance to attach to one thing or another; you’re trying to, very consciously, figure out something when you haven’t really got much of a clue, but there’s this theory and that theory, this bit of engineering practice and that bit of architectural practice; you don’t really know what to make of them. Compare that to somebody who tosses a cricket ball at you. You can sit and watch it and say, ‘It’s going at 17 degrees’; start to work it out on paper, do some calculus, etc. and about a week after the ball’s whizzed past you, you may have figured out where it’s going to be and how to catch it. On the other hand, you can simply put your hand out and let the ball drop into it, because we have all kinds of faculties built into us, just below the conscious level, able to do all kinds of complex integrations of all kinds of complex phenomena which therefore enables us to say, ‘Oh look, there’s a ball coming; catch it!’
What I’m suggesting is that Feng Shui and an awful lot of other things are precisely of that kind of problem. There are all sorts of things we know how to do, but don’t necessarily know what we do, we just do them. Go back to the issue of how you figure out how a room or a house should be designed and instead of going through all the business of trying to work out the angles and trying to digest which genuine architectural principles you may want to take out of what may be a passing architectural fad, just ask yourself, ‘how would a dragon live here?’ We are used to thinking in terms of organic creatures; an organic creature may consist of an enormous complexity of all sorts of different variables that are beyond our ability to resolve but we know how organic creatures live. We’ve never seen a dragon but we’ve all got an idea of what a dragon is like, so we can say, ‘Well if a dragon went through here, he’d get stuck just here and a little bit cross over there because he couldn’t see that and he’d wave his tail and knock that vase over’. You figure out how the dragon’s going to be happy here and lo and behold! you’ve suddenly got a place that makes sense for other organic creatures, such as ourselves, to live in.
So, my argument is that as we become more and more scientifically literate, it’s worth remembering that the fictions with which we previously populated our world may have some function that it’s worth trying to understand and preserve the essential components of, rather than throwing out the baby with the bath water; because even though we may not accept the reasons given for them being here in the first place, it may well be that there are good practical reasons for them, or something like them, to be there. I suspect that as we move further and further into the field of digital or artificial life we will find more and more unexpected properties begin to emerge out of what we see happening and that this is a precise parallel to the entities we create around ourselves to inform and shape our lives and enable us to work and live together. Therefore, I would argue that though there isn’t an actual god there is an artificial god and we should probably bear that in mind. That is my debating point and you are now free to start hurling the chairs around!
Q – What is the fourth age of sand?
Let me back up for a minute and talk about the way we communicate. Traditionally, we have a bunch of different ways in which we communicate with each other. One way is one-to-one; we talk to each other, have a conversation. Another is one-to-many, which I’m doing at the moment, or someone could stand up and sing a song, or announce we’ve got to go to war. Then we have many-to-one communication; we have a pretty patchy, clunky, not-really-working version we call democracy, but in a more primitive state I would stand up and say, ‘OK, we’re going to go to war’ and some may shout back ‘No we’re not!’—and then we have many-to-many communication in the argument that breaks out afterwards!
In this century (and the previous century) we modelled one-to-one communications in the telephone, which I assume we are all familiar with. We have one-to-many communication—boy do we have an awful lot of that; broadcasting, publishing, journalism, etc.—we get information poured at us from all over the place and it’s completely indiscriminate as to where it might land. It’s curious, but we don’t have to go very far back in our history until we find that all the information that reached us was relevant to us and therefore anything that happened, any news, whether it was about something that’s actually happened to us, in the next house, or in the next village, within the boundary or within our horizon, it happened in our world and if we reacted to it the world reacted back. It was all relevant to us, so for example, if somebody had a terrible accident we could crowd round and really help. Nowadays, because of the plethora of one-to-many communication we have, if a plane crashes in India we may get terribly anxious about it but our anxiety doesn’t have any impact. We’re not very well able to distinguish between a terrible emergency that’s happened to somebody a world away and something that’s happened to someone round the corner. We can’t really distinguish between them any more, which is why we get terribly upset by something that has happened to somebody in a soap opera that comes out of Hollywood and maybe less concerned when it’s happened to our sister. We’ve all become twisted and disconnected and it’s not surprising that we feel very stressed and alienated in the world because the world impacts on us but we don’t impact the world. Then there’s many-to-one; we have that, but not very well yet and there’s not much of it about. Essentially, our democratic systems are a model of that and though they’re not very good, they will improve dramatically.
But the fourth, the many-to-many, we didn’t have at all before the coming of the Internet, which, of course, runs on fibre-optics. It’s communication between us that forms the fourth age of sand. Take what I said earlier about the world not reacting to us when we react to it; I remember the first moment, a few years ago, at which I began to take the Internet seriously. It was a very, very silly thing. There was a guy, a computer research student at Carnegie Mellon, who liked to drink Dr Pepper Light. There was a drinks machine a couple of storeys away from him, where he used to regularly go and get his Dr Pepper, but the machine was often out of stock, so he had quite a few wasted journeys. Eventually he figured out, ‘Hang on, there’s a chip in there and I’m on a computer and there’s a network running around the building, so why don’t I just put the drinks machine on the network, then I can poll it from my terminal whenever I want and tell if I’m going to have a wasted journey or not?’ So he connected the machine to the local network, but the local net was part of the Internet—so suddenly anyone in the world could see what was happening with this drinks machine. Now that may not be vital information but it turned out to be curiously fascinating; everyone started to know what was happening with the drinks machine. It began to develop, because in the chip in the machine didn’t just say, ‘The slot which has Dr Pepper Light is empty’ but had all sorts of information; it said, ‘There are 7 Cokes and 3 Diet Cokes, the temperature they are stored at is this and the last time they were loaded was that’. There was a lot of information in there, and there was one really fabulous piece of information: it turned out that if someone had put their 50 cents in and not pressed the button, i.e. if the machine was pregnant, then you could, from your computer terminal wherever you were in the world, log on to the drinks machine and drop that can! Somebody could be walking down the corridor when suddenly, ‘bang!’ — there was a Coca-Cola can! What caused that? — well obviously somebody 5,000 miles away! Now that was a very, very silly, but fascinating, story and what it said to me was that this was the first time that we could reach back into the world. It may not be terribly important that from 5,000 miles away you can reach into a University corridor and drop a Coca-Cola can but it’s the first shot in the war of bringing to us a whole new way of communicating. So that, I think, is the fourth age of sand.
by Douglas Adams
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October 23, 2010
“All worldly pursuits have but the one unavoidable end, which is sorrow: acquisitions end in dispersion; buildings in destruction; meetings in separation; births, in death. Knowing this, one should, from the very first, renounce acquisition and heaping up, and building, and meeting; and faithful to the commands of an eminent guru, set about realizing the Truth (which has no birth or death).”
Note: According to a blessing Milarepa uttered towards the end of his life, anyone who but hears the name Milarepa even once attracts an instant blessing and will not take rebirth in a lower state of existence during seven consecutive lifetimes. This was prophesied by Saints and Buddhas of the past even before his lifetime.
September 17, 2010
A somewhat strange question, I know… But still… I’m going to ask it, none the less. What is time? How do we define it? Something popped into my head this morning regarding the passage of time, and I just couldn’t shake it off. While lying there in bed, I was meditating upon a spot on the ceiling… And I heard my wrist watch ticking away down by this chest of mine, as my left hand lay motionless on it. “Tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock…” it uttered in the silent darkness of the early morning. And I couldn’t help but wonder what it was counting… Observe the thoughts coming into to my mind… And they dissipate… Stillness… Awareness… My eyes resting on the ceiling’s spot… Subtle and distinct, it goes beyond words… And then the bizarre, “tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock…” murmured back into the gap of mind. “It’s the watch”, I thought… “BUT what is it measuring?” Again the cycle repeats itself, bringing the mind gently back around to observing the thoughts… “Free to come, free to go…” repeat the words of Lama Chodrak as I remember the technique we were recently taught. “But still… What is that sound measuring?”
Up I get… I have no idea how long its been since I went to bed. Was it two hours now… Maybe three… Possibly even four… ? The wrist watch states clearly that it is 3 hours 47 minutes and 32 seconds past in the morning. But ‘past’ what? It’s past midnight… So what? What does that tell me? It tells me that its three hours and forty seven minutes… Oh! It’s now forty eight minutes past the third hour of the morning of the 17th of September, of the year 2010… BUT… So what… ??? It’s just a blindingly stupid social construct to linearise a strange passage of some abstract notion… Some abstract objectification of this essence that we call ‘time’. I know it feels like time is passing by… But is that because time actually exists… OR is because I’ve been conditioned to believe it somehow exists… !?!?
So down to the kitchen I go… I put the kettle on in the chill morning’s still of night. The silence is deceptive… Until the slight roar of the kettle begins… The stars glisten wildly in the clear dark skies above… Everything seems so slight… Jupiter is setting in the west near the horizon, a big white star-like beacon of light in the sky… Only a few hours earlier had I been watching it in the inky sky through an 80mm APO telescope. “Tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock…” once again broke through the ambient noise as the kettle boiled down to a silent plume of undulating steam that poured wildly forth from its spout… There, in the steam, I saw the same currents of turbulence that were also writhing about over the gas giant’s surface some 900 million kilometres away… Movement… The planet had moved… “Tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock…”
And that’s when it happened… That’s when I realised what time is… I know it might sound somewhat silly… But in that moment I realised that time is not about seconds passing by… Nor is it built from minutes or hours… Even the days fluttering past (or dragging by, whatever they do for you) don’t really make time what it is. Time is about change… It’s change that really matters. Our notions of time give us a linear representation of something that is not linear at all from the point of the observer. What many of us understand time to be i.e. seconds, minutes, hours, days, etc… Is not really what time is… I know, I’m repeating myself… But it’s so obvious that it had me fooled for quite a while… It’s like looking at a meter long piece of string… Measuring it and then writing it down on a piece of paper i.e. “it is 1 meter long…” And then forgetting how long 1 meter is… And forgetting totally that “it” refers to a piece of string, which is 1 meter long… Because the notion of time is so abstract i.e. it’s not something we can view directly with any certainty like we can a meter rule, for example… We can take two meter rules and place them side by side and see that they are of the same length… And with a weight we can roughly feel that two 1 kg masses are similar to one another in their pull downwards… However with the notion of time, we cannot see it… It’s hard to define… Thus we simply use a device, like a clock or watch, to measure what it is that we think is a unit of time i.e. a second, or a minute, or even an hour, is… But in this notion of a unit of time, we (well, I did) totally forget what it is that is being measured… And that is the dynamic of material change as it unfolds in the world/universe around us.
So I poured the hot water from the kettle into the big mug that held a Rooibos tea bag in it… And, as I was doing this, I placed my hand around the mug. The cold surface turned from cold to warm, to an almost sudden hot… “Tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock…” Time passed by in a linear clock/watch like fashion as the energy moved from the hot water in the mug to the ceramic of the mug itself. Change… Energetic change… As I slowly eased my grasp on the mug, I saw the colour from the tea bag diffuse into the clear, hot water around it. As I placed the spoon inside the mug and gently stirred, more colour broke free from the leaves, and the colour became a darker red, which almost resembled a black inky colour under the dim kitchen light that was shinning from the cooker’s fume hood. Change… More change… As I stirred the tea further, and then went to get the milk, I became aware of the vast orchestration of changes that were going on in my body’s biochemistry, all of which effected the contraction of various muscles that allowed me to move coherently across the kitchen, to the fridge, open the door, grab the soya milk, removing it from the fridge carefully, closing the fridge door and then returning to the mug of tea standing, steaming by the hot kettle… My desire for a warm drink had effected a change in my body’s biochemistry… A change that was carried out with a precision that avoided any accidental spillage or vague awareness… All the time, during this change, “tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock…”
There is a universal dynamic that allows things to move and things to change. One direction i.e. letting the colour and flavour out of the dried tea leaves and into the hot water in a mug, is obvious and easy… But doing the reverse i.e. putting the colour and flavour from the hot water back into the dried tea leaves is obviously a somewhat harder action. There is a natural entropy of cause and effect, whereby what goes in one direction does not necessarily mean that it can go back in the opposite direction with the same amount of ease… Change goes in the obvious direction… From a greater energy to a more diffuse and lower energy state… A state of greater entropy… Thus, there is a crazy direction to this ‘time’ thing… An arrow of sorts, that points to how change can occur in a particular, or given, system. That’s when I realised that someone here had sent me a web link to a lecture on ‘time’… One that I hadn’t yet watched, even though I said I was going to… Cheers Tim!
So I effected another biochemical change as I moved to the living room and sat down with my tea in order to search through my comments here on this website to find Tim’s reference… And there it was. As I played the video I was aware of more change occurring within the code of the computer in front of me… Muffled, and almost inaudibly, it procured a gentle “click, dit, click, dit, dit, click, dit…” of the processor, as the screen colours changed to form one picture to the next – with sound (of course) – of Dr Sean Carroll giving a talk about what I had been previously thinking about…
But before I discuss this video, I’d like to have a look at what we generally perceive to be ‘time…’ How do we – the human race – define what is ‘generally’ known as time… And why do we perceive it thus… Why did I think that time was the passing of seconds… Why did the units of time come to mind before the idea of entropy and change? And for that I want to look to a dictionary in order to initially find what everyone else might discover if they decided to use this common repository of understanding and meaning.
time – noun
1. the system of those sequential relations that any event has to any other, as past, present, or future; indefinite and continuous duration regarded as that in which events succeed one another.
2. duration regarded as belonging to the present life as distinct from the life to come or from eternity; finite duration.
3. ( sometimes initial capital letter ) a system or method of measuring or reckoning the passage of time: mean time; apparent time; Greenwich Time.
4. a limited period or interval, as between two successive events: a long time.
5. a particular period considered as distinct from other periods: Youth is the best time of life.
6. Often, times.
a. a period in the history of the world, or contemporary with the life or activities of a notable person: prehistoric times; in Lincoln’s time.
b. the period or era now or previously present: a sign of the times; How times have changed!
c. a period considered with reference to its events or prevailing conditions, tendencies, ideas, etc.: hard times; a time of war.
7. a prescribed or allotted period, as of one’s life, for payment of a debt, etc.
8. the end of a prescribed or allotted period, as of one’s life or a pregnancy: His time had come, but there was no one left to mourn over him. When her time came, her husband accompanied her to the delivery room.
9. a period with reference to personal experience of a specified kind: to have a good time; a hot time in the old town tonight.
10. a period of work of an employee, or the pay for it; working hours or days or an hourly or daily pay rate.
11. Informal . a term of enforced duty or imprisonment: to serve time in the army; do time in prison.
12. the period necessary for or occupied by something: The time of the baseball game was two hours and two minutes. The bus takes too much time, so I’ll take a plane.
13. leisure time; sufficient or spare time: to have time for a vacation; I have no time to stop now.
14. a particular or definite point in time, as indicated by a clock: What time is it?
15. a particular part of a year, day, etc.; season or period: It’s time for lunch.
16. an appointed, fit, due, or proper instant or period: a time for sowing; the time when the sun crosses the meridian; There is a time for everything.
17. the particular point in time when an event is scheduled to take place: train time; curtain time.
18. an indefinite, frequently prolonged period or duration in the future: Time will tell if what we have done here today was right.
19. the right occasion or opportunity: to watch one’s time.
20. each occasion of a recurring action or event: to do a thing five times; It’s the pitcher’s time at bat.
21. times, used as a multiplicative word in phrasal combinations expressing how many instances of a quantity or factor are taken together: Two goes into six three times; five times faster.
22. Drama . one of the three unities. Compare unity ( def. 8 ).
23. Prosody . a unit or a group of units in the measurement of meter.
a. tempo; relative rapidity of movement.
b. the metrical duration of a note or rest.
c. proper or characteristic tempo.
d. the general movement of a particular kind of musical composition with reference to its rhythm, metrical structure, and tempo.
e. the movement of a dance or the like to music so arranged: waltz time.
25. Military . rate of marching, calculated on the number of paces taken per minute: double time; quick time.
26. Manège . each completed action or movement of the horse.
So there you go… There are quite a few notions of how the word ‘time’ can be used, along with the various subtleties in how the noun ‘time’ can affect another word’s respective definition. The aspect of time seems to remain fairly similar throughout though i.e. it remains closely linked to the idea of a ‘period’ of time… To the measure of time itself… Without any mention as to what it is necessarily measuring. Yes, it mentions events… But what is an event? In its ultimate notion, an event specifies, or even denotes, change… So change is really what is occurring… Not time itself.
But still… That doesn’t explain why I was seeing seconds fluttering by in my mind’s eye, a second hand on a big universal clock that was counting numbers in as linear fashion as possible, while lying in bed listening to my wrist watch… !?!? So perhaps it was the devise that we use for measuring time that had clouded my apparent judgement of what time actually was…
The hands on every watch the world over count in seconds, minutes, hours and even days as they flutter past in our daily routines. Whenever we ask ourselves, “what is the time?” we effectively are asking what time is it in relation to the social construct of time that our human civilisation had forged for itself. Thus seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years spring to mind so prominently. Not once will anyone answer, when asked the question of what time is it, something like, “Well… It’s that time of day just after breakfast, when you’re grabbing your coat and rushing out the door to cycle to work…” Rather they’d automatically say, “It’s half past eight in the morning.” So often we don’t see the change that happens in between asking what the time is… We miss the HUGE elephant in the room!
In this regard it is our over dependence on the clock and watch to visualise the abstract temporal passage of change that blinds us to the change itself… So here I’d like to have a look at these humble and innocuous machines that attempt to allow us to perceive time in a linear fashion… The use of a clock/watch, a devise that is found commonly throughout our everyday lives and which has a sort of sacred place within society, is our crutch to seeing change… To knowing the tricky and “apparently” painful subject of uncertainty… So what exactly is a clock/watch? Well… I’m no expert on the subject, so I’m going to refer to a dictionary’s definition before I proceed any further.
clock – noun
1. an instrument for measuring and recording time, esp. by mechanical means, usually with hands or changing numbers to indicate the hour and minute: not designed to be worn or carried about.
2. time clock.
3. a meter or other device, as a speedometer or taximeter, for measuring and recording speed, distance covered, or other quantitative functioning.
4. biological clock.
5. ( initial capital letter ) Astronomy . the constellation Horologium.
6. Computers . the circuit in a digital computer that provides a common reference train of electronic pulses for all other circuits.
So, again, there appear to be several definitions… However, in this instance I’m particularly taken by the first entry, as it references the machine like devises that I’ve been referring to. But still, this is hardly an adequate description of the instrument that has fooled me for so long… And, with regards to trying to understand what time actually is, it doesn’t remotely touch on why time is necessary to understand. So why were clocks invented? What follows on from this scentence, I’ve borrowed from the Wikipedia website, and describes the history of clocks, along with their uses.
A clock is an instrument used to indicate, keep, and co-ordinate time. The word clock is derived ultimately (via Dutch, Northern French, and Medieval Latin) from the Celtic wordsclagan and clocca meaning “bell“. For horologists and other specialists the term clockcontinues to mean exclusively a device with a striking mechanism for announcing intervals of time acoustically, by ringing a (wendell) bell, a set of chimes, or agong.[dubious – discuss] A silent instrument lacking such a mechanism has traditionally been known as a timepiece. In general usage today a “clock” refers to any device for measuring and displaying the time. Watches and other timepieces that can be carried on one’s person are often distinguished from clocks.
The clock is one of the oldest human inventions, meeting the need to consistently measure intervals of time shorter than the natural units: the day; the lunar month; and theyear. Devices operating on several different physical processes have been used over the millennia, culminating in the clocks of today.
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Sundials and other devices
The sundial, which measures the time of day by using the sun, was widely used inancient times. A well-constructed sundial can measure local solar time with reasonable accuracy, and sundials continued to be used to monitor the performance of clocks until the modern era. However, its practical limitations – it requires the sun to shine and does not work at all during the night – encouraged the use of other techniques for measuring time.
Candle clocks, and sticks of incense that burn down at approximately predictable speeds have also been used to estimate the passing of time. In an hourglass, fine sand pours through a tiny hole at a constant rate and indicates a predetermined passage of an arbitrary period of time.
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Water clocks, also known as clepsydrae (sg: clepsydra), along with the sundials, are possibly the oldest time-measuring instruments, with the only exceptions being the vertical gnomon and the day-counting tally stick. Given their great antiquity, where and when they first existed are not known and perhaps unknowable. The bowl-shaped outflow is the simplest form of a water clock and is known to have existed in Babylon and inEgypt around the 16th century BC. Other regions of the world, including India and China, also have early evidence of water clocks, but the earliest dates are less certain. Some authors, however, write about water clocks appearing as early as 4000 BC in these regions of the world.
The Greek and Roman civilizations are credited for initially advancing water clock design to include complex gearing, which was connected to fanciful automata and also resulted in improved accuracy. These advances were passed on through Byzantium andIslamic times, eventually making their way to Europe. Independently, the Chinese developed their own advanced water clocks（钟）in 725 A.D., passing their ideas on toKorea and Japan.
Some water clock designs were developed independently and some knowledge was transferred through the spread of trade. Pre-modern societies do not have the same precise timekeeping requirements that exist in modern industrial societies, where every hour of work or rest is monitored, and work may start or finish at any time regardless of external conditions. Instead, water clocks in ancient societies were used mainly forastrological reasons. These early water clocks were calibrated with a sundial. While never reaching the level of accuracy of a modern timepiece, the water clock was the most accurate and commonly used timekeeping device for millennia, until it was replaced by the more accurate pendulum clock in 17th century Europe.
In 797 (or possibly 801), the Abbasid caliph of Baghdad, Harun al-Rashid, presentedCharlemagne with an Asian Elephant named Abul-Abbas together with a “particularly elaborate example” of a water clock.
In the 13th century, Al-Jazari, an engineer who worked for Artuqid king of Diyar-Bakr, Nasir al-Din, made numerous clocks of all shapes and sizes. The book described 50 mechanical devices in 6 categories, including water clocks. The most reputed clocks included the Elephant, Scribe and Castle clocks, all of which have been successfully reconstructed. As well as telling the time, these grand clocks were symbols of status, grandeur and wealth of the Urtuq State.
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Early mechanical clocks
None of the first clocks survive from 13th century Europe, but various mentions in church records reveal some of the early history of the clock.
The word horologia (from the Greek ὡρα, hour, and λέγειν, to tell) was used to describe all these devices, but the use of this word (still used in several Romance languages) for all timekeepers conceals from us the true nature of the mechanisms. For example, there is a record that in 1176 Sens Cathedral installed a ‘horologe’ but the mechanism used is unknown. According to Jocelin of Brakelond, in 1198 during a fire at the abbey of St Edmundsbury (now Bury St Edmunds), the monks ‘ran to the clock’ to fetch water, indicating that their water clock had a reservoir large enough to help extinguish the occasional fire.
A new mechanism
The word clock (from the Latin word clocca, “bell”), which gradually supersedes “horologe”, suggests that it was the sound of bells which also characterized the prototype mechanical clocks that appeared during the 13th century in Europe.
Outside of Europe, the escapement mechanism had been known and used in medieval China, as the Song Dynasty horologist and engineer Su Song (1020–1101) incorporated it into his astronomical clock-tower of Kaifeng in 1088. However, his astronomical clock and rotating armillary sphere still relied on the use of flowing water (i.e. hydraulics), while European clockworks of the following centuries shed this old habit for a more efficient driving power of weights, in addition to the escapement mechanism.
A mercury clock, described in the Libros del saber, a Spanish work from AD 1277 consisting of translations and paraphrases of Arabic works, is sometimes quoted as evidence for Muslim knowledge of a mechanical clock. However, the device was actually a compartmented cylindrical water clock, whose construction was credited by the Jewish author of the relevant section, Rabbi Isaac, to “Iran” (Heron of Alexandria).
Between 1280 and 1320, there is an increase in the number of references to clocks and horologes in church records, and this probably indicates that a new type of clock mechanism had been devised. Existing clock mechanisms that used water power were being adapted to take their driving power from falling weights. This power was controlled by some form of oscillating mechanism, probably derived from existing bell-ringing or alarm devices. This controlled release of power – the escapement – marks the beginning of the true mechanical clock.
These mechanical clocks were intended for two main purposes: for signalling and notification (e.g. the timing of services and public events), and for modeling the solar system. The former purpose is administrative, the latter arises naturally given the scholarly interest in astronomy, science, astrology, and how these subjects integrated with the religious philosophy of the time. The astrolabewas used both by astronomers and astrologers, and it was natural to apply a clockwork drive to the rotating plate to produce a working model of the solar system.
Simple clocks intended mainly for notification were installed in towers, and did not always require faces or hands. They would have announced the canonical hours or intervals between set times of prayer. Canonical hours varied in length as the times of sunrise and sunset shifted. The more sophisticated astronomical clocks would have had moving dials or hands, and would have shown the time in various time systems, including Italian hours, canonical hours, and time as measured by astronomers at the time. Both styles of clock started acquiring extravagant features such as automata.
In 1283, a large clock was installed at Dunstable Priory; its location above the rood screen suggests that it was not a water clock. In 1292, Canterbury Cathedral installed a ‘great horloge’. Over the next 30 years there are brief mentions of clocks at a number of ecclesiastical institutions in England, Italy, and France. In 1322, a new clock was installed in Norwich, an expensive replacement for an earlier clock installed in 1273. This had a large (2 metre) astronomical dial with automata and bells. The costs of the installation included the full-time employment of two clockkeepers for two years.
Early astronomical clocks
Besides the Chinese astronomical clock of Su Song in 1088 mentioned above, in Europe there were the clocks constructed by Richard of Wallingford in St Albans by 1336, and by Giovanni de Dondi in Padua from 1348 to 1364. They no longer exist, but detailed descriptions of their design and construction survive, and modern reproductions have been made. They illustrate how quickly the theory of the mechanical clock had been translated into practical constructions, and also that one of the many impulses to their development had been the desire of astronomers to investigate celestial phenomena.
Wallingford’s clock had a large astrolabe-type dial, showing the sun, the moon’s age, phase, and node, a star map, and possibly the planets. In addition, it had a wheel of fortune and an indicator of the state of the tide at London Bridge. Bells rang every hour, the number of strokes indicating the time.
Dondi’s clock was a seven-sided construction, 1 metre high, with dials showing the time of day, including minutes, the motions of all the known planets, an automatic calendar of fixed and movable feasts, and an eclipse prediction hand rotating once every 18 years.
It is not known how accurate or reliable these clocks would have been. They were probably adjusted manually every day to compensate for errors caused by wear and imprecise manufacture.
Water clocks are sometimes still used today, and can be examined in places such as ancient castles and museums.
Clockmakers developed their art in various ways. Building smaller clocks was a technical challenge, as was improving accuracy and reliability. Clocks could be impressive showpieces to demonstrate skilled craftsmanship, or less expensive, mass-produced items for domestic use. The escapement in particular was an important factor affecting the clock’s accuracy, so many different mechanisms were tried.
Spring-driven clocks appeared during the 15th century, although they are often erroneously credited to Nürnbergwatchmaker Peter Henlein (or Henle, or Hele) around 1511. The earliest existing spring driven clock is the chamber clock given to Peter the Good, Duke of Burgundy, around 1430, now in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum. Spring power presented clockmakers with a new problem; how to keep the clock movement running at a constant rate as the spring ran down. This resulted in the invention of the stackfreed and the fusee in the 15th century, and many other innovations, down to the invention of the modern going barrel in 1760.
Early clock dials did not use minutes and seconds. A clock with a dial indicating minutes was illustrated in a 1475 manuscript by Paulus Almanus, and some 15th-century clocks in Germany indicated minutes and seconds. An early record of a second hand on a clock dates back to about 1560, on a clock now in the Fremersdorf collection. However, this clock could not have been accurate, and the second hand was probably for indicating that the clock was working.
During the 15th and 16th centuries, clockmaking flourished, particularly in the metalworking towns of Nuremberg and Augsburg, and in Blois, France. Some of the more basic table clocks have only one time-keeping hand, with the dial between the hour markers being divided into four equal parts making the clocks readable to the nearest 15 minutes. Other clocks were exhibitions of craftsmanship and skill, incorporating astronomical indicators and musical movements. The cross-beat escapement was invented in 1584 by Jost Bürgi, who also developed the remontoire. Bürgi’s clocks were a great improvement in accuracy as they were correct to within a minute a day. These clocks helped the 16th-century astronomer Tycho Brahe to observe astronomical events with much greater precision than before.
A mechanical weight-driven astronomical clock with a verge-and-foliot escapement, a striking train of gears, an alarm, and a representation of the moon’s phases was described by the Ottoman engineer Taqi al-Din in his book, The Brightest Stars for the Construction of Mechanical Clocks (Al-Kawākib al-durriyya fī wadh’ al-bankāmat al-dawriyya), published in 1556-1559. Similarly to earlier 15th-century European alarm clocks, it was capable of sounding at a specified time, achieved by placing a peg on the dial wheel. At the requested time, the peg activated a ringing device. The clock had three dials which indicated hours, degrees and minutes. He later made an observational clock for the Istanbul observatory of Taqi al-Din (1577–1580), describing it as “a mechanical clock with three dials which show the hours, the minutes, and the seconds.” This was an important innovation in 16th-century practical astronomy, as at the start of the century clocks were not accurate enough to be used for astronomical purposes.
The next development in accuracy occurred after 1656 with the invention of the pendulum clock. Galileo had the idea to use a swinging bob to regulate the motion of a time telling device earlier in the 17th century. Christiaan Huygens, however, is usually credited as the inventor. He determined the mathematical formula that related pendulum length to time (99.38 cm or 39.13 inches for the one second movement) and had the first pendulum-driven clock made. In 1670, the English clockmaker William Clement created the anchor escapement, an improvement over Huygens’ crown escapement. Within just one generation, minute hands and then secondhands were added.
A major stimulus to improving the accuracy and reliability of clocks was the importance of precise time-keeping for navigation. The position of a ship at sea could be determined with reasonable accuracy if a navigator could refer to a clock that lost or gained less than about 10 seconds per day. This clock could not contain a pendulum, which would be virtually useless on a rocking ship. Many European governments offered a large prize for anyone that could determine longitude accurately; for example, Great Britain offered 20,000 pounds, equivalent to millions of dollars today. The reward was eventually claimed in 1761 by John Harrison, who dedicated his life to improving the accuracy of his clocks. His H5 clock was in error by less than 5 seconds over 10 weeks.
The excitement over the pendulum clock had attracted the attention of designers resulting in a proliferation of clock forms. Notably, the longcase clock (also known as the grandfather clock) was created to house the pendulum and works. The English clockmaker William Clement is also credited with developing this form in 1670 or 1671. It was also at this time that clock cases began to be made of wood and clock faces to utilize enamel as well as hand-painted ceramics.
Alexander Bain, Scottish clockmaker, patented the electric clock in 1840. The electric clock’s mainspring is wound either with an electric motor or with an electro-magnet and armature. In 1841, he first patented the electromagnetic pendulum.
The development of electronics in the 20th century led to clocks with no clockwork parts at all. Time in these cases is measured in several ways, such as by the vibration of atuning fork, the behaviour of quartz crystals, or the quantum vibrations of atoms. Even mechanical clocks have since come to be largely powered by batteries, removing the need for winding.
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How Clocks Work
The invention of the mechanical clock in the 13th century initiated a change in timekeeping methods from continuous processes, such as the motion of the gnomon‘s shadow on a sundial or the flow of liquid in a water clock, to repetitive oscillatory processes, like the swing of a pendulum or the vibration of a quartz crystal, which were more accurate. All modern clocks use oscillation.
Although the methods they use vary, all oscillating clocks, mechanical and digital and atomic, work similarly and can be divided into analogous parts. They consist of an object that repeats the same motion over and over again, an oscillator, with a precisely constant time interval between each repetition, or ‘beat’. Attached to the oscillator is a controller device, which sustains the oscillator’s motion by replacing the energy it loses to friction, and converts its oscillations into a series of pulses. The pulses are then added up in a chain of some type of counters to express the time in convenient units, usually seconds, minutes, hours, etc. Then finally some kind of indicator displays the result in a human-readable form.
This provides power to keep the clock going.
- In mechanical clocks, this is either a weight suspended from a cord wrapped around a pulley, or a spiral spring called amainspring.
- In electric clocks, it is either a battery or the AC power line.
Since clocks must run continuously, there is often a small secondary power source to keep the clock going temporarily during interruptions in the main power. In old mechanical clocks, a maintaining power spring kept the clock turning while the mainspringwas being wound. In quartz clocks that use AC power, a small backup battery is often included to keep the clock running if it is unplugged temporarily from the wall.
- In mechanical clocks, this is either a pendulum or a balance wheel.
- In some early electronic clocks and watches such as the Accutron, it is a tuning fork.
- In quartz clocks and watches, it is a quartz crystal.
- In atomic clocks, it is the vibration of electrons in atoms as they emit microwaves.
- In early mechanical clocks before 1657, it was a crude balance wheel or foliot which was not a harmonic oscillator because it lacked a balance spring. As a result they were very inaccurate, with errors of perhaps an hour a day.
The advantage of a harmonic oscillator over other forms of oscillator is that it employs resonance to vibrate at a precise naturalresonant frequency or ‘beat’ dependent only on its physical characteristics, and resists vibrating at other rates. The possible precision achievable by a harmonic oscillator is measured by a parameter called its Q, or quality factor, which increases (other things being equal) with its resonant frequency. This is why there has been a long term trend toward higher frequency oscillators in clocks. Balance wheels and pendulums always include a means of adjusting the rate of the timepiece. Quartz timepieces sometimes include a rate screw that adjusts a capacitor for that purpose. Atomic clocks are primary standards, and their rate cannot be adjusted.
Synchronized or slave clocks
Some clocks rely for their accuracy on an external oscillator; that is, they are automatically synchronized to a more accurate clock:
- Slave clocks, used in large institutions and schools from the 1860s to the 1970s, kept time with a pendulum, but were wired to amaster clock in the building, and periodically received a signal to synchronize them with the master, often on the hour. Later versions without pendulums were triggered by a pulse from the master clock and certain sequences used to force rapid synchronization following a power failure.
- Synchronous electric clocks don’t have an internal oscillator, but rely on the 50 or 60 Hz oscillation of the AC power line, which is synchronized by the utility to a precision oscillator. This drives a synchronous motor in the clock which rotates once for every cycle of the line voltage, and drives the gear train.
- Computer real time clocks keep time with a quartz crystal, but are periodically (usually weekly) synchronized over the internet to atomic clocks (UTC), using a system called Network Time Protocol.
- Radio clocks keep time with a quartz crystal, but are periodically (often daily) synchronized to atomic clocks (UTC) with time signals from government radio stations like WWV, WWVB, CHU, DCF77 and the GPS system.
This has the dual function of keeping the oscillator running by giving it ‘pushes’ to replace the energy lost to friction, and converting its vibrations into a series of pulses that serve to measure the time.
- In mechanical clocks, this is the escapement, which gives precise pushes to the swinging pendulum or balance wheel, and releases one gear tooth of the escape wheel at each swing, allowing all the clock’s wheels to move forward a fixed amount with each swing.
- In electronic clocks this is an electronic oscillator circuit that gives the vibrating quartz crystal or tuning fork tiny ‘pushes’, and generates a series of electrical pulses, one for each vibration of the crystal, which is called the clock signal.
- In atomic clocks the controller is an evacuated microwave cavity attached to a microwave oscillator controlled by amicroprocessor. A thin gas of cesium atoms is released into the cavity where they are exposed to microwaves. A laser measures how many atoms have absorbed the microwaves, and an electronic feedback control system called a phase locked loop tunes the microwave oscillator until it is at the exact frequency that causes the atoms to vibrate and absorb the microwaves. Then the microwave signal is divided by digital counters to become the clock signal.
In mechanical clocks, the low Q of the balance wheel or pendulum oscillator made them very sensitive to the disturbing effect of the impulses of the escapement, so the escapement had a great effect on the accuracy of the clock, and many escapement designs were tried. The higher Q of resonators in electronic clocks makes them relatively insensitive to the disturbing effects of the drive power, so the driving oscillator circuit is a much less critical component.
This counts the pulses and adds them up to get traditional time units of seconds, minutes, hours, etc. It usually has a provision forsetting the clock by manually entering the correct time into the counter.
- In mechanical clocks this is done mechanically by a gear train, known as the wheel train. The gear train also has a second function; to transmit mechanical power from the power source to run the oscillator. There is a friction coupling called the ‘cannon pinion’ between the gears driving the hands and the rest of the clock, allowing the hands to be turned by a knob on the back to set the time.
- In digital clocks a series of integrated circuit counters or dividers add the pulses up digitally, using binary logic. Often pushbuttons on the case allow the hour and minute counters to be incremented and decremented to set the time.
This displays the count of seconds, minutes, hours, etc. in a human readable form.
- The earliest mechanical clocks in the 13th century didn’t have a visual indicator and signalled the time audibly by striking bells. Many clocks to this day are striking clocks which strike the hour.
- Analog clocks, including almost all mechanical and some electronic clocks, have a traditional dial or clock face, that displays the time in analog form with moving hour and minute hand. In quartz clocks with analog faces, a 1 Hz signal from the counters actuates a stepper motor which moves the second hand forward at each pulse, and the minute and hour hands are moved by gears from the shaft of the second hand.
- Digital clocks display the time in periodically changing digits on a digital display.
- Talking clocks and the speaking clock services provided by telephone companies speak the time audibly, using either recorded or digitally synthesized voices.
. . . . . . . .
Types Of Clock
Clocks can be classified by the type of time display, as well as by the method of timekeeping.
Time Display Methods
Analog clocks usually indicate time using angles. The most common clock face uses a fixed numbered dial or dials and moving hand or hands. It usually has a circular scale of 12 hours, which can also serve as a scale of 60 minutes, and 60 seconds if the clock has a second hand. Many other styles and designs have been used throughout the years, including dials divided into 6, 8, 10, and 24 hours. The only other widely used clock face today is the 24 hour analog dial, because of the use of 24 hour time inmilitary organizations and timetables. The 10-hour clock was briefly popular during the French Revolution, when the metric system was applied to time measurement, and an Italian 6 hour clock was developed in the 18th century, presumably to save power (a clock or watch striking 24 times uses more power).
Another type of analog clock is the sundial, which tracks the sun continuously, registering the time by the shadow position of its gnomon. Sundials use some or part of the 24 hour analog dial. There also exist clocks which use a digital display despite having an analog mechanism—these are commonly referred to as flip clocks.
Alternative systems have been proposed. For example, the Twelve o’clock indicates the current hour using one of twelve colors, and indicates the minute by showing a proportion of a circular disk, similar to a moon phase.
Digital clocks display a numeric representation of time. Two numeric display formats are commonly used on digital clocks:
- the 24-hour notation with hours ranging 00–23;
- the 12-hour notation with AM/PM indicator, with hours indicated as 12AM, followed by 1AM–11AM, followed by 12PM, followed by 1PM–11PM (a notation mostly used in the United States).
Most digital clocks use an LCD, LED, or VFD display; many other display technologies are used as well (cathode ray tubes, nixie tubes, etc.). After a reset, battery change or power failure, digital clocks without a backup battery or capacitor either start counting from 12:00, or stay at 12:00, often with blinking digits indicating that time needs to be set. Some newer clocks will actually reset themselves based on radio or Internet time servers that are tuned to national atomic clocks. Since the release of digital clocks in the mainstream, the use of analogue clocks has declined significantly.
For convenience, distance, telephony or blindness, auditory clocks present the time as sounds. The sound is either spoken natural language, (e.g. “The time is twelve thirty-five”), or as auditory codes (e.g. number of sequential bell rings on the hour represents the number of the hour like the bell Big Ben). Most telecommunication companies also provide a Speaking clock service as well.
. . . . . . . .
Clocks are in homes, offices and many other places; smaller ones (watches) are carried on the wrist; larger ones are in public places, e.g. a train station or church. A small clock is often shown in a corner of computer displays, mobile phones and many MP3 players.
The purpose of a clock is not always to display the time. It may also be used to control a device according to time, e.g. an alarm clock, a VCR, or a time bomb (see: counter). However, in this context, it is more appropriate to refer to it as a timer or trigger mechanism rather than strictly as a clock.
Computers depend on an accurate internal clock signal to allow synchronized processing. (A few research projects are developing CPUs based on asynchronous circuits.) Some computers also maintain time and date for all manner of operations whether these be for alarms, event initiation, or just to display the time of day. The internal computer clock is generally kept running by a small battery. Many computers will still function even if the internal clock battery is dead, but the computer clock will need to be reset each time the computer is restarted, since once power is lost, time is also lost.
An ideal clock is a scientific principle that measures the ratio of the duration of natural processes, and thus will give the time measure for use in physical theories. Therefore, to define an ideal clock in terms of any physical theory would be circular. An ideal clock is more appropriately defined in relationship to the set of all physical processes.
This leads to the following definitions:
- A clock is a recurrent process and a counter.
- A good clock is one which, when used to measure other recurrent processes, finds many of them to be periodic.
- An ideal clock is a clock (i.e., recurrent process) that makes the most other recurrent processes periodic.
The recurrent, periodic process (e.g. a metronome) is an oscillator and typically generates a clock signal. Sometimes that signal alone is (confusingly) called “the clock”, but sometimes “the clock” includes the counter, its indicator, and everything else supporting it.
This definition can be further improved by the consideration of successive levels of smaller and smaller error tolerances. While not all physical processes can be surveyed, the definition should be based on the set of physical processes which includes all individual physical processes which are proposed for consideration. Since atoms are so numerous and since, within current measurement tolerances they all beat in a manner such that if one is chosen as periodic then the others are all deemed to be periodic also, it follows that atomic clocks represent ideal clocks to within present measurement tolerances and in relation to all presently known physical processes. However, they are not so designated by fiat. Rather, they are designated as the current ideal clock because they are currently the best instantiation of the definition.
Navigation by ships and planes depends on the ability to measure latitude and longitude. Latitude is fairly easy to determine through celestial navigation, but the measurement oflongitude requires accurate measurement of time. This need was a major motivation for the development of accurate mechanical clocks. John Harrison created the first highly accurate marine chronometer in the mid-18th century. The Noon gun in Cape Town still fires an accurate signal to allow ships to check their chronometers.
I like the idea that there was a 10-hour clock, which became briefly popular during the French Revolution, when the metric system was applied to time measurement. And this raised in me a curiosity as to why there are 24 hours in a day… !? Why 24??? Okay, okay… I know… Why not 24… ? But still, there must have been a fairly comprehensive reason as to why 24 hours was chosen… Rather than 20, or 15, or whatever… ? Well, there are several websites that recount reasons as to why this is so…
But ultimately, the purpose of this blog is not really interested in why there are 24 hours in a day… For me, all this seems to demonstrate clearly is mankind’s ability to give meaning to things that didn’t have (or even, really need) any meaning. Whatever “memes” were floating around at that “point in time” i.e. when the clock was invented, gave credence and importance to the number 24 over other numbers… I mean, it’s certainly not the case that some righteous ‘dude’ sat down one day, and feeling the need to divide up the day into smaller units – mainly so that he could allocate his time more equally to specific pursuits that he had/wanted to do – sat there experimenting with 10 hour days, 15 hour days, 40 hour days, etc… and eventually choose 24 hour days, simply because the groove this gave his days felt good. I mean, come on… It’s another one of those social constructs, which apparently allow us humans to function better within the confines of our social conformity, similar to some of those that I’ve already discussed in previous blogs i.e. Imaginez… Ceci N’est Pas Une Pipe!
All this 24 hour business shows us is that we’ve chosen to describe – as linearly as possible – the passing of time with 24 equally divided hours. Why is this? Well… When you’re a human being i.e. a big hairless ape-like-creature, creatures who – through memetic evolution – become curious about our own passage through entropy… Oops… I mean time… We begin to notice that ‘time’ can sometimes fly-by (especially when having fun), while sometimes it can crawl along, sluggish and sloth like, dragging the moments out into gruelling hours of torment. So how do we measure it? How can we tell if our perception of its passing is going slowly or quickly? And bang… There’s the devise… A clock springs forth from someone’s imagination.
Here I would like you to take a moment to view the following video on how the perception of time can distort due to certain pressures and/or stresses that are induced within the perceiver.
So… What I’m really curious about is… What limits our perception of time. ??? Even… What regulates our perception of time. ??? Just like the internal workings of watch, which cannot go beyond a certain speed, otherwise the gears and cogs that are integral to its function would fall apart and/or wear out with the increased strain… So too the human body’s biochemical system for perception has certain limitations. For example, neurones can only fire/trigger a certain number of times per second. Mainly as the discharge of ions, along with the re-uptake of the ions, throughout the neuronal structure takes a certain period of time before an action potential can be re-established. The molecules do not teleport themselves into and out of the cell without consequence… Otherwise they would simply bypass the natural order of things and the neurone would not be able to serve any function whatsoever. What is important here, is that this is a system of diffusion gradients. One that is delicately balanced on the genetic blue prints upon which the system is all built… This came about through trial and error… And this trial and error yielded the present structures that we have in our bodies here today on Earth, with their relative sizes and structures that, in relation to the organism and the atom, function in the ways that yield the best adaptive and survival results for organism in question… And that applies to all those organisms found here on Earth presently. These survival mechanisms i.e. the release of adrenaline, for example, can directly affect the complex interplay between the natural workings in the biochemical pathways of perception. Which in turn affect the way we perceive things around us… Such as the passage of time.
Time isn’t some objective quantity like the kilo or mile… The material clocks and watches that recount time’s so-called “passing” throughout our lives – along with their unit of seconds, minutes, etc… – do provide us with a linear idea of how time flows… But still, the passage of time is very intricately linked, even woven, into the fabric of our own body’s bio-mechanisms. Our bodily functions are governed by a vast and intricately array of complex cellular machinery, all of which is regulated by inter and intra cellular processes – a load of feedback loops – as well as a “bunch” of natural physical chemistry, much like those that Jack Szostak discussed in the article “Biologists On The Verge Of Creating New Form Of Life” with regard to the formation of cellular walls. These natural limitations are all interdependent on a vast and long line of cause and effect… A chain of events that allowed Life, as we know it, to come about… And, thus, these present conditions are the very limits to how the delicate systems of our current human physiology and anatomy can function… And at what rates they can function… Thus time is dependent on the environment in which it is being perceived, as well as the mechanisms i.e. our bodies, which are what we use to perceive time’s “passing”, utilising our own internal system of changes (firing of neurones, biochemical pathways eliciting changes in muscle tissue for movement, etc…).
As I’ve said earlier… Time is ultimately about change. Without change, things do not happen. We must understand that change is what drives our need to understand time… And, having seen how our bodies are really one big complex, biochemical reaction that is unfolding temporally, We – the observers – directly affect the viewing/observing of environmental changes that we witness, all through the use of our own internal biomechanical pathways, which – we must realise – can change due to stimulus, and thus alter the way in which we perceive time’s “passing.” Thus time is not objective i.e. like a second or an hour… Why did I even think that!?!? Rather it is a subjective occurrence that, through our own imposed linear division of it, has become a subjective/objective interdependent duality.
Cellular functions are all limited by diffusion gradients within the solutions of our bodily/cellular fluids, which are all at specific concentrations and temperatures, etc… Like the internal mechanisms of an overly strained watch that is running way to fast for its own design, if our bodies ran too fast, things would natural cease to function in the way that they do presently. The nonlinear dynamics of our current state of being would collapse and chaos would redesign us from the inside out. And natural selection would temper those of us hardy enough to continue into better, more functional biochemical machines. Such is evolution.
As I sit here writing this… “Tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock…” The change in the watch’s internal mechanism makes itself heard… What I am hearing is change within the air pressure… Sonic pulses of rarified and pressured air. Change is everywhere… Impermanence here is important with regards to understanding what time is. We are not permanent beings who never change. Change continually goes on inside of us on a daily basis. Change allows us to perceive events in the forward motion of accruing figures of time, and allows us to develop and modify ineffectual habits with new ways of doing things… So we learn… Change shapes the landscape around us, and the cradle of the universe that our solar system rests in. Change is all important, especially when trying to understand what the “self” is… I know some of our words and ideas seem permanent and fixed… But that is delusion… That is fear of change preventing you from seeing that meaning is empty… Meaning changes… When we cling to something so strongly, we forget that it’s ALL in a constant state of flux… We forget that it is ALL changing… All the time… This is something which I am about to discuss further in a future blog on “self”… Why? Because change allows us to understand what is happening to us on a daily basis, without clinging to solid definitions of apparently real, ultimate, and constant meaning… With this idea we might well glimpse how impermanent things really are. Seconds are not concrete… They flex into and out of standard perceived notion of what a second “should” be… Our perception of these apparently solid units of temporal passing are not concrete… Why do we feel sad sometimes… ? Perhaps it is because we have lost touch with what change really is, and how common it is. I know I had until last night… Or that this morning… !?!?
Whatever it is… Or even was… I know this day will never happen again in quite the same way that it did. Change is all encompassing… Difference continually blooms everywhere… The chaos in this universal system is what makes things worth living for… It’s what drives us forward… Nothing ever truly stagnates… Only the rigid ideas of our egocentric certainty… A permanence driven by pride and self-assured delusion… Prevent us all from seeing this ocean of change that surrounds us… That washes around me… And yet sometimes I will probably still wake up and feel like it’s the same day as it was last week. “Oh, it’s Friday… AGAIN!?!?” But it’s not… Delusion and illusion is so pervasive in our society’s perception of the world that it is really no wonder so many of us here in the UK – apparently 15% in 2006 – suffer from depression. I mean, if you looked at time like I did until recently, I can understand that change is a really dizzying and bizarre concept… One that breaks open the bubble of conformity and certainty… Allowing uncertainty to wash over you on a daily basis… Sometimes the change is so subtle that we barely even notice it occurring through the rigid and seemingly unbending social constructs that we use to define time and other seemingly permanent, well established ideas… And it is for this very reason that I am driven to despair when people look to science for ultimate and unbending truths… “But you said it works like that… And now you’re saying it doesn’t do that anymore… It now works like this!? What’s that all about then… You obviously haven’t got a clue what you’re talking about…” jive that I’ve seen time and again in news reports concerning climate change and other issues… When something is too clear, it becomes hard to see. It is said that a dunce once searched for fire with a lighted lantern. Had he known what fire was, he could have cooked his rice much sooner.
Even so… There is still hope… Because ultimately, through these little steps – and with big awareness – we can peer into seemingly obvious notions that we’ve taken for granted for so long, and see something new, something fresh and real… Nothing lasts forever. Not even sadness… Time is testament to this… It’s not about the seconds or the minutes… These seemingly unbendable units of time’s eternal flow… Nope… It’s about change. Even time changes near big gravitational distortions in space time… And when we look closely at things around us, we may discover that even they change.
So… To bring this posting to an end, and to focus on what exactly (well, nearly exactly) ‘time’ is, I’d like to finish this exposé with that video that Tim provided me with a link to… A video that shows Dr Sean Carroll’s lecture on “The Origin Of The Universe And The Arrow Of Time”, clarifying why time moves seemingly in one direction… Why time denotes change and destroys any idea of permanence…
To find out more about Dr Sean Carroll, please click here.
Or to see another version of this lecture, the one that I originally viewed, please click here.
September 2, 2010
Over the last two days I have been fortunate enough to bear witness to some pretty amazing news – well, for me at least – which came through the Twitter vine. The organisation 350.org posted a Tweet which read:
Buddhists rock climate – the @DalaiLama endorses the 350 target: http://u.nu/8uhwe
The reason behind this being somewhat special for me is that my colleague – who is a Buddhist nun, presently out of robes – asked me why I gave up my car. Her reason at the time for asking this was that this action provided the biggest obstacle to my connection with learning the Dharma and attending Buddhist social events in Haywards Heath. As I may have already mentioned in previous blogs, I live in Tunbridge Wells, which is about 26 miles away going by car. Petrol and time wise, it cost me about eight pounds in fuel to get there and back again, along with a total of one hour and fifteen minutes in travel time. However, since I gave up my car several months ago, I’m now at the mercy of train fairs and delays. Basically the journey is double the time… Mainly as I either have to go from Tunbridge Wells train station to London Bridge and then back out to Haywards Heath… Or I have to go via Redhill in Surry, which requires three changes (four trains) in total. Also, the train fair is nearly doubled i.e. each return journey costs £15.10. So my Buddhist friend Chudrun did actually have a point. However, I argued that you couldn’t put a price on the environment. If it took double the time, and cost twice as much, then I’d have to go with it out of principle.
To be fair though, at the time I really did see her point i.e. that until one is truly enlightened, all our actions are somewhat based on self centred tendencies that – while they might be considered to be for the benefit of all living and sentient beings here on Earth – are ‘actually’ rapped up in pride and self obsessive tendencies, like “aren’t I good for helping the environment out!” kinda thing. Even so, my heart and intuition was telling me that despite what other say about my actions, this is even more important. When I finally got home that evening and sat down with a cuppa in my hand after meditation practise, I realised if someone didn’t make the effort, then all sentient beings would suffer greatly at from the whiplash caused by the chaos naturally inherent in ‘our’ dynamical weather system here on Earth…
And indeed we are all presently beginning to suffer at the hands of this indiscriminate master of fortune (the bestower of Life as we presently know it) and destruction. We only have to look at the radical shifts in recent weather patterns to see that our manmade effect on climate and regional weather patterns are wrecking havoc with the natural (and chaotic) order of things. The balance of the Tao is shifting to compensate for our actions and pollution. Just the other day Nature magazine reported that a brief cold spell killed millions of aquatic animals in the Amazon river. Also, droughts in China this year seemed to spell an ever exacerbating pattern for future times. It certainly doesn’t end there… Russia too was faced with hardship when the fires recently raged outside of Moscow city in the exceptionally hot and dry summer. And scientists around the globe are staggered at the rate at which the Arctic is warming up.
So there really seems to be something going on… And bearing in mind there are now nearly seven billion of us here on the Earth, I can take a pretty good guess as to what is ‘fuelling’ this climatic change. So while I hear some of my colleagues saying that reaching enlightenment is more important than curbing my use of petrol and plastics… I am also aware that if we don’t change our habits, then we could also hinder all sentient beings from attaining happiness, simply because we couldn’t – though I fear it’s more a case of didn’t want to – understand the effect that our actions were having on the Earth around us.
“We can create a very bad, negative situation for ourselves… Or we can create a very pleasant situation for ourselves.”
Ringu Tulku Rinpoche
Thus, last night I sent the aforementioned tweet off to Chudrun… Mainly to make a point about why I was going to stick with my decision about giving up my car, regardless of the consequences to my ultimate and eventual enlightenment… And this morning I got a reply… One which drew my attention to an interview of a friend – and fellow monk – of hers, Ringu Tulku Rinpoche. Here Ringu Tulku Rinpoche talks candidly and pertinently about his ideas concerning climate change, why it came about and how we might help effect a change for the benefit of all sentient beings – perhaps even all Life and its future generations – here on Earth… By changing our perspective, ourselves and our present self centred habits, by realising some harsh truths about our own inner workings and embracing them honestly, rather than sweeping them under the carpet.
‘Greed is also ignorance…We lose the overall view.
We almost stop thinking we are part of anything at all’
JS: Rinpoche, you have studied the world ecological crisis and seen Al Gore’s film. How does it make you feel as a Buddhist and a human being? How do you react to it?
RT: From the Buddhist point of view—and not just Buddhist point of view—nature does not pollute itself. If it is polluted, it is because people are polluting it. Obviously, we have polluted the air and the global environment which is why we have created the problem. I feel if we human beings have done something wrong to make it so bad, it is up to human beings to correct it, since it affects all sentient beings. This is the karma of the situation from the Buddhist point of view. Whatever kind of action we take, we will have to experience a corresponding kind of result. The climate issue is a very clear case of this. We can create a very bad, negative situation for ourselves or we can create a very pleasant situation for ourselves. Whether it is the planet, society, the local environment or relationships between people – this is how actions and reactions affect each other. The phenomenon comes precisely from our incorrect way of doing things, which is to say, without considering the effect of our actions. If we want to enjoy the world around us, for our lifetime and for future generations, we must do something to improve it.
There are predictions that the outcome will be or could be like this or like that, but there is nothing definite. There is just the indication, ‘if you act like this, then it could be like that. However, if you act like this, it can be better’. If people want to change their behaviour, the world can become better. Even in very negative dark ages, there could be periods of time that are positive and good. That has been predicted. Therefore, from the Buddhist point of view, how the world becomes depends on the people living there and how they act. If human society degenerates and the world becomes worse and worse, what is happening is that peoples’ negative emotions become very raw. They act, aggressively, greedily, negatively, violently. That is how the world becomes worse. War, famine, diseases, environmental catastrophe and diminishing lifespan develop from that. If our actions or reactions improve – we cease killing, lying, deceiving, and stealing from each other – from the Buddhist point of view, both the human and ecological situation will increasingly improve. The way we live our lives and the way we react to each other affects not just human beings, but our natural environment, the world we live in.
JS: So you are saying there is a psychic interdependence, on a collective level?
RT: Not only psychic, but behavioural. How we react psychologically is reflected in our behaviour. So what we do to each other affects the environment. For instance, if we are overly greedy, we take everything out of the earth, without any respect. We do not care for the land or the air. We ignore our pollution. If we react with hatred and just try to harm or destroy somebody or something, we devote great resources to manufacturing weaponry, and in the process we also destroy our own environment. Harming others is harming ourselves too.
JS: Or harming the future in this case.
RT: Yes, the future.
JS: The future others, and our future selves as well.
RT: That’s right. That is the Buddhist way of seeing.
JS: So you are saying it could go either way. It could reach some pitch, or some collective recognition, or not. And if not, it could come to a crisis point. Of course, we are already at a crisis point.
RT: That’s right. It can get worse if we do not put a stop to this way of acting and reacting. If we do change sufficiently, it could also reverse itself.
JS: It seems that greed is a key ‘poison’ being projected at this time. Powerful elites in society are not necessarily going to abandon greed. Change may now have to come ‘from the grassroots’.
RT: That is right. Greed is also based on ignorance. The assumption ‘if I have more, if I consume more, then it is better for me. It will bring happiness for me. Whoever has the most things is the better, happier person’ is based on fundamental misunderstanding.
JS: A misunderstanding assiduously cultivated by mass advertising.
RT: That is right.
JS: A system dedicated to generating greed contains the seeds of its own destruction, unless something really changes. On the scientific side, the de-glaciation of Greenland seems to be faster than they previously thought. It is potentially catastrophic for the world’s coastlines.
RT: I saw a BBC report that ships could now make the Northwest Passage, a short cut from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, north and west through the Canadian Arctic. The ice has melted so much that there is a waterway right through on the top of the world. Countries have already started to fight about who owns that ocean.
JS: Buddhism talks about ‘beginningless time’. If we look at the scientific history of the earth, it is 4½ billion years old. The biosphere, the living world is 3½ billion years old. The human species is less than a quarter of a million years old. So are we just referring to something ‘beginningless’ in terms of human consciousness?
RT: ‘Beginningless’ time is not based on one world system. It is based on countless universes throughout endless space. Space is limitless, so if there is this world system, there are also others. How many are there that our instruments can observe now? There could be different kinds of beings, worlds, limitless possibilities. It is not talking about this world. This world has a beginning, a middle, and an end. In Indian Buddhist cosmology, one great kalpa is divided into 80 small kalpas. It takes 20 kalpas for one world system to form, from nothingness into existence. From the time of its existence until any kind of living being is able to survive takes another 20 kalpas. From the time living beings arrive, grow, flourish, and expand, until they become extinct takes another 20 kalpas. From the point that system starts to dissolve until it is completely destroyed and remains in dissolution is another 20 kalpas. That is a single cycle of one big kalpa. Furthermore, while one world is being created, another is living, another is dying, another is already extinct. There are countless worlds and universes like that.
JS: The Pope is issuing a ‘social encyclical’ on the issue of global warming and will make an appeal to the U.N. in person. The Patriarch of the Orthodox Christian Church has convened an interfaith conference on a boat near the North Pole—all faiths praying together. Do you think it is a good idea for Buddhist leaders to join forces in front of their students and raise this issue, at prayer festivals, conferences and teachings?
RT: I think it is very appropriate. More people are becoming aware of global warming, but only recently. Not long ago, people had little or no clarity on this subject.
JS: It has changed over the last year since the Fourth IPCC Report came out. Science progresses methodically and slowly. To reach consensus between 2500 world experts is not trivial. Finally they came up with 90% certainty that humans are causing it. After that there could not be any respectable opposition. The media woke up somewhat. However, even that has not stopped those opposing the truth.
RT: No, not at all.
JS: Even though the scientific conclusions are specific and water-tight, still the political arena does not change, because enormous profits being made through greed and waste. What about our own view and conduct in relation to the ecological crisis? Great spiritual masters like Guru Padmasambhava saw the world as dreamlike and illusionary, yet they went to enormous effort to benefit future generations. I wonder what this tells us about the view we should be cultivating.
RT: Emptiness, interdependence, impermanence, the nature of beings and things being dreamlike…these do not prevent us from doing things for other people. They do not prevent us doing positive things and reducing negativity. It may be like a dream, but it still affects people. The same question is raised in the Bodhicaryavatara. If everything is emptiness, why is there a need for compassion? There is a need because people suffer. They do not understand emptiness. Therefore it is important to work for their benefit, to reduce suffering. Its being like a dream does not change anything in that regard.
JS: I presume it would change the way in which we worked, and avoid anxiety, if we recognize the situation has twin aspects of being both dream-like and a crisis?
RT: Because things are impermanent, interdependent, emptiness, we should try to see them clearly, so that whatever the situation may be, we do not panic. We change our way of experiencing. That does not mean that we should not try to change the situation. Even if we have to live in that situation, we should do so in a peaceful and joyful manner. Within the situation, we should do whatever we can to make it better – without becoming negative, without becoming completely hopeless, or overwhelmed by tragedy. We should live in a way to make things better, both outside and inside.
JS: You must be familiar with this kind of situation. You were a refugee when Tibet was destroyed by external enemies. Do you see any relationship between these two crises?
RT: The situation for the Tibetans is very relevant. The Dalai Lama has repeatedly said we should not become pessimistic; we should stay optimistic. That does not imply we should ignore the situation, be unaware of the problems and injustices, or blame ourselves. Rather we should clearly see the situation we are in. Recognizing it, understanding it, accepting it, then we do not need to become utterly disillusioned. We need to see clearly what we can do to make it better. If we can find even a little thing to make it better, we should concentrate on that, rather than just mourning the negative things that have happened for us. If we do that, we become more positive, more enthusiastic, more optimistic. That was the message we Tibetan refugees received. Instead of becoming angry and hateful, feeling sorry for ourselves and completely losing hope – look at the situation and ask ‘what can we do now?’ That is why the Tibetan refugees tried their best to preserve their culture and improve their situation a little bit. This, of course, is not an easy thing, either inside or outside Tibet. There are so many negative forces. Nonetheless, it is working.
JS: Often at great cost.
RT: Yes, the cost is there. All the negative things happened anyway, so within that context, whatever positive could be done, was done.
JS: In the present climate crisis, there is the possibility that the human race is going to fail to recognize its karmic responsibilities. The IPCC have said that unless human society stops pumping 70 million tons of carbon gas into the atmosphere annually, within 10 years we could irretrievably damage our climate and the whole biosphere.
RT: According to Buddhism and according to our experience as Tibetan refugees, we never know if we will succeed in changing or reversing the situation, or not. We can never say how much can be done, or how much cannot be done. Nobody can say that precisely, but that should not prevent us trying.
JS: There is a great urgency that the world should arrive at a genuine treaty and put it into practice. What advice would you give as a Buddhist monk and teacher?
RT: I think the understanding of this information is very important. People have a vague idea that global warming is dangerous, but I think most have not yet experienced the urgency at a personal level. Governments talk a lot, but I do not know how serious they really are. Their actions do not match their talk. Maybe some more or less understand it, but their actions are inadequate.
There is a Sanskrit verse:
For the sake of the world you should sacrifice your country.
For the sake of the country you should sacrifice your village.
For the sake of your village you should sacrifice your family.
For the sake of your family you should sacrifice yourself.
Well, it appears the opposite attitude is prevalent nowadays:
For the sake of your country you sacrifice the world.
For the sake of your village you sacrifice your country.
For the sake of your family you sacrifice your village.
For the sake of yourself you sacrifice your family.
When that kind of situation has come about, we think “If I feel it is somehow beneficial for me, or if I get more money for a certain time, I do not care if the planet is going to the dogs or not.” That is a root problem; basically it is ignorance. We think our own welfare is assured because we get money or power or whatever. Yet we live in this world and actually if the world is gone, where will we use our ‘profit’?
JS: In the context of Global Warming, we could even say, collectively, this is pathological ignorance, possibly even a kind of ‘death wish’.
RT: It is as if we do not actually know, we are a bit confused. The kind of education we receive over-emphasizes personal achievement and personal goals. ‘I have to be the top person. I have to win the most. My success is the only thing. What happens around me is not the most important thing.’ It is an attitude, a way of looking that is too ego-centred. We lose the overall view. We almost stop thinking that we are part of anything at all. That is why some people become depressed, lonely and so forth. It also comes from this.
Interview by John & Diane Stanley, Sikkim, October 2007
Ringu Tulku Rinpoche (b.1952) was recognised by Karmapa XVI as a reincarnate lama of Rigul monastery. He holds the Kagyu title of Khenpo and Nyingma title of Lopon Chenpo. A professor of Tibetology in Sikkim for 17 years, Rinpoche authored a noted work on the non-sectarian Rime movement. His fluent English and congenial teaching style is appreciated worldwide. He founded Bodhicharya, an international organization that coordinates the preservation & transmission of Buddhist teachings with intercultural dialogue, education & social projects.
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OR to find out more about how Buddhism is beginning to face the challenges set forth by human over population and the resulting effects of climate change, please click here.
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