Big in Japan: Sommers goes to a Seminar


What is this?

“This” is a retrospective of my years as a graduate student earning an M.A. in nine parts.

Let’s begin with Part I…

So what if someone knows a lot about theoretical physics? Look what someone created in my cabin during a cruise to Alaska...
So what if someone knows a lot about theoretical physics? Look what someone created in my cabin during a cruise to Alaska…

⇒Part I.⇐

You Can Figure Out the Universe, Too!

In which we join Aaron Sommers as he begins his epic journey across the uncharted waters known as M.A.L.S. In this, the first episode, Sommers enrolls in a course on Cosmology. It is taught by three professors. He writes short stories. He destroys them. He writes summaries of the Cosmology courses. A professor approves some. They are published online. He listens to the scholars argue.

A tale in nine parts.

Βack in 2002, I enrolled in INCO 796,  a course called “Cosmology and Our View of the World,” at the University of New Hampshire.

Back then, I was a graduate student in the Liberal Studies Program.

This meant I was earning a MALS.[1]

A MALS program encouraged students to take a wide breadth of classes—exactly the opposite of what you’re supposed to encourage graduate students to do.

This class (INCO 796) fulfilled two requirements of the program.

  1. It was graduate level (over 500).
  2. It was “interdisciplinary”[2] and unique and disordered.

The class was officially titled “Touching the Limits of Knowledge: Cosmology and Our View of the World.”

It was technically a seminar, taught by a theoretical physicist[3], a geneticist and a philosopher.

They split up the units accordingly.

Or tried to.

There were a lot of things I loved about this class. What I loved most of all  was all the disagreement and discussion.

The topics were so insanely provocative–so incredibly difficult to condense into not only bite size, but palatable chunks, the professors required the class write up “summaries” of what we talked about.

There is one here http://www-ssg.sr.unh.edu/preceptorial/Summaries_2002/summary3_2002.html and another nugget herehttp://www-ssg.sr.unh.edu/preceptorial/Summaries_2001/outline8_2001.html[4]

When I asked the physicist, Eberhard Mobius[5] if my summary on “time” was acceptable, he grimaced and paused and backed away from me a bit, like either my breath was rotten or I just oozed warm-and-fuzzy humanitie-ness, and said “yah, I’d say acceptable, perhaps enough for our purposes[6]. Acceptable as, I would say, the cookie monster can understand what he is eating.”[7]

Eberhard[8] once told us a story[9] of when he was a kid, like the age of 6, somewhere in Vienna or Hamburg, and his friends where playing stickball[10] or running and playing on these fields outside his parents estate and he was leaning up against a tree[11] and wondering what was behind the universe.

Little Eberhard had just been taught “uni” was one, and “verse” sound, so he wondered what type of “notes” were out there behind our universe.[12]

At the age of six he wondered that.

Makes sense.

I could relate.

When I was six, I too was full of wonder.

But it was more about boogers.[13]

Thomas Davis was the other scientist, a professor from the genetics department[14].

Davis worked on developing the genome[15] for mint and strawberries[16].

He was a grad of USC[17], former surfer[18], garage band member[19], perpetually curious guy who drank bottles of ice tea[20] in class and taught me how consciousness is on a continuum[21].

 He was (is) a brilliant man[22] and loved to argue because he often won, and took special satisfaction in getting Eberhard going with statements like “there is no acceptable definition of life and what makes something living[23]” and “we need to be careful when we mention some ‘thing’[24]. No one has ever given me an acceptable definition of ‘thingness’ and I have my doubts anyone ever will.”

Paul Brockleman was the other vertex of the Cosmology triangle.[25]

He was a wizened professor from the Philosophy Department. Technically he was Emeritus[26].

Brockleman was revered, and although he voiced the “spiritual” aspects of the course[27], he never got New Agey[28] with us. Brockleman eschewed Sartre[29] and turned me on to Kierkegaard[30].

He’s got a book I’m about to read[31].

He knew a lot about physics, too, and pointed out all the heavies of that field (Oppenheimer[32], Einstein, Bohr) asserted some kind of design theory to the universe[33]. That is, they rejected the “random shit happens everywhere all the time”[34] approach.  Whether they “believed”[35] in God or a God or a personal God was not relevant (and often misrepresented by both sides of the table)[36].

Brockleman told a story that functioned as a counterweight to Eberhard’s. He also told us—I think it was the class after Eberhard told us about his carefree days as a young German chap—about a day, a moment in his life where the switches were flipped in his brain, the lights went on in his consciousness, he experienced what he called “a memory frozen in time.”

Brockleman started off class with the ditty.

He said he grew up in the Midwest and there was this big pond in the back of his house.

Every afternoon Brockleman read by the water—usually light stuff like Plato or Kant. He always read underneath this big oak tree (trees were a motif in these professors’ stories. Thinking back now I’ll wager they added them for the purposes of setting. Maybe they were fans of The Andy Griffith Show).

One afternoon, just as the sun was about to set, he skipped rocks on the water, as he did every day, but this time picked up a rock that was not only the roundest but also the smoothest one he’d ever seen. He inspected it briefly and proceeded to whip it across the surface.

Halfway across the water a fish emerged just as the rock flew through the air.

The rock made contact with a terrible thwap and the water-dweller sank then twitched at the surface helplessly. Young Brockleman ran towards the creature, jumping, diving into the water and holding the fish in his hands.

He watched it die before his eyes, he told us, eyes still full of grief and regret.

Right then and there, soaked to the bone, he understood the frailty of life and the power of death.

That they did not compete with each other and were not a case of a positive and negative force but rather some kind of perpetual dance.

Life was frail, yes, he nodded and looked at Eberhard who looked away nervously, but it wasn’t because Death was more powerful than Life.

They needed each other.

In the sense of a cycle, he said.

Eberhard grimaced slightly. You see? Brockleman asked no one and everyone in class at once, then testified “one is at six o’clock and one is at noon.”

We did see it. Brockleman was (is) Da Bomb.

That was back in 2002. I tried to “summarize” Eberhard’s talk on how Time and Space are not absolute here (http://www-ssg.sr.unh.edu/preceptorial/Summaries_2001/outline8_2001.html).

This was a failure on many levels, comically so because Eberhards’ primary concern was that I had to make sure Einstein’s name was in all caps. The rest of my summary was, as he probably saw it, Sesame Street enough for the poor saps who’d stumble on it via the internet.

Despite of—or in spite of—the fact it was a graduate level class, INCO 796 had no formal papers assigned, tests, quizzes or any type of formal or informal assessment.

We learned to listen.

But I did write for the Core Seminar. That one…that one was taught by a Russian Studies Professor with a big white mustache who wore lots of woolly sweaters and many frowns.

His class focused on Sex and Food in Art.

To be Continuted….in PART II…

 A Ton of Tolstoy

[1] That’s Master of Arts in Liberal Studies. MALS. It is an unfortunate-sounding acronym, suggesting an endocrine disorder or sinister sub-class of melanoma rather than academic title.

[2] One of the handiest adjectives I’ve ever come across. Sounds great when you explain how you take a class—or enter a program—that’s interdisciplinary. Screw those suckers stuck on a major! Pity those lemmings with a field! The title alone suggests all sorts of innovative academic experience– one where you are able to rise above those petty things called academic departments. Interdisciplinary. It’s a handy title, no doubt about that. Not sure if it exists, though. I do think intradisciplinary exists.

[3] Interplanetary travel exists, too, according to him. We just need to spend the money to make it happen. Somewhere in Eberhard a killer screenplay was just dying to get out. Back then a night in the mini-dorms might have unleashed it, but it’s likely long dead now.

[4] I’m in no way including mine to give an example of what an ideal “summary” was nor to make sure the write-up shows up when someone googles me, but to remind me of how Eberhard tried to correct one summary I made by saying I spelled my name wrong. He said it was Erin Somers. When I explained to him that no, my name was spelled this way, and I was relatively certain about that fact, he laughed his suppressed and scary Germanic laugh and said “yah, relative I guess you could say. We do spell it with an E in my family. Yah, indeed. And I do not understand why the two Ms?”

[5] Yeah, that’s his actual name (the Mobius even has that German punctuation mark over the o). As in a Mobius Strip. He’s not only a German physicist; he has a type of a geometric shape as his surname.

[6] In other words for a student who frequents Hamilton Smith Hall.

[7] Not as bad as an insult as it reads. Eberhard made attempts to appeal to the American Youth in his class, and he looked at me as especially wayward and exceptionally hedonistic which was eerily on target on at least account.

[8] No one called him “Professor” Mobius. It may have been because he was more Dr. than anything else, or that he didn’t like the title to begin with. Either way, no one ever went there.

[9] Of course he prefaced it with “this is a true story, an actual account,” because God Forbid there would be room for that mental masturbation of the schizoid personality type known as Fiction Writing.

[10] I’d have guess soccer but then again Eberhard may have had unorthodox friends back then.

[11] He said it was a Sycamore but later referenced it as a Willow.

[12] After he told this story the room was silent and I remember Eberhard clearing his throat and saying “but that was a long time ago, when I vas just a little boy. I no longer wonder such silly unscientific things.”

[13] And legos.

[14] Biology, technically, but he looked closer than your average hippy in the College Woods.

[15] Or something like that. This stuff: Vining KJ, Zhang Q, Smith CA, Davis TM. 2007. Identification of resistance gene analogs and verticillium resistance-like sequences in Mentha longifolia. J. Amer. Soc. Hort. Sci. 132(4):1-10 – See more at: http://biolsci.unh.edu/faculty/davis#sthash.DphZBbh9.dpuf

[16] Not as boring as you might think. UNH has a great agriculture department and Dr. Davis worked to map genomes of mint and strawberries to improve the crops. Much of that great flavor in your smoothie may be from his labor.

[17] Once I asked him about his view on marijuana and he said he always remembered this woman who scored higher than he did in their exams in college. She ended up studying genetics too, but smoked too much pot and ended up talking to her cats because it triggered all sorts of bad stuff. He also said it “damaged your Chi” (but never elaborated on that, even when I pressed for more).

[18] There were a lot of interesting personal details that made Davis both unscientific and memorable. I remember at the celebration at Tin House (bar on campus) when he was promoted to Associate Professor he told me his wife was a Quaker. He also drank a Long Island Ice Tea that night following my theory he only drank ice tea owing perhaps to some esoteric knowledge of how the EGCG or catechins or super-antioxidants in tea gave him extended life or an upper hand in exercises of the mind (not that he needed it).

[19]Professor Davis’ old bands’ name was “Liquid Chicken.” When I asked him why they chose that he said “because no one else did.”

[20] It was flavored, too.

[21] Didn’t really “teach” me so much as to answer a question I had after class one night. We were discussing possibilities of afterlife. He said anyone who doesn’t claim the “maybe, maybe not” view is either in denial or arrogant or has some combination of the two. When I asked him what he believed he paused and looked away and walked away from me then said “consciousness is on a continuum. Part of it is physical, but most is not. The part that isn’t keeps going. Like a slinky down stairs that never end.”

[22] There’s now a “Davis Lab” at UNH.

[23] I recall listening him take down a hot-shot honors Biology student one night. We had just come back from a field trip of sorts to listen to Steven J. Gould, the famous evolutionary biologist. Professor Davis had asked a question to Dr. Gould in front of 700+ people that he couldn’t answer, so he was ready to handle anything in class. This student went on about how we would know about intelligent life on another planet because we know what makes something living or dead. Davis disagreed. They debated over whether a virus is a living thing for nearly an hour. I remember nothing about the scientific part of the discussion but vividly remember Professor schooling this kid who sat there red-faced and sweaty in his Greek-lettered T-shirt and had no corner to run to.

[24] At times Professor Davis did take a page from the Bubba-ism book, a la “depends on your definition of ‘is’” although I’d doubt the professor would’ve classified fellatio from a coed as outside the realm of “sexual relations.”

[25] The image is an apt one considering Brockleman did show up one night wearing a Dark Side of the Moon t-shirt. It’s safe to assume the psychedelic aspect of the reference was lost on him as he was in his early 70s but one never knew back then on the Durham campus.

[26] I never figured this out.

[27] Brockleman loved to nod when Eberhard went on about how the universe is neither perfect nor ordered nor designed, it “just is.” Everyone would see Eberhard somewhat annoyed with him, that somehow this old “philosopher” was simultaneously affirming and rejecting his Big Science proofs with a simple gesture, all while he sat down.

[28] Even when we talked about “God” and the science grad. Students would get all worked up, Brockleman veered towards the Eastern View, more Vedanta than anything else, and at the same time showed respect for the know-it-all-ness of atheism, but in the same way a grandfather respects his grandson for building an intricate snow fort.

[29] He never got into specifics on this one but I trusted his judgment.

[30] The concept of “faith” was merged with “mystery” in Brockleman’s approach. Scientists—the hard core ones at least—were on this perpetual search to uncover mysteries and ruin the curiosity that makes life fun.

[31] Surprisingly, it is called Cosmology and Creation (http://www.amazon.com/Cosmology-Creation-Spiritual-Significance-Contemporary/dp/product-description/0195119908) and when it was released there was all sorts of fragile scientific egos bruised by his very suggestion there is a place for any mystical experience in the life of one who pursues science. I suspect many were turned off by the word “mysticism” which is understandable seeing how for many people it conjures up images of crystals and fasting and big community saunas where so-called gurus encourage nubile adherents to disrobe and Experience the Energy but if that’s the case it speaks more for their mindset then Brockleman’s judicious use of the term (which, from what I remember from class, was more “De Daumier-Smith Blue Period” than “Teddy”, if you catch my drift).

[32] Noted as the most mysterious of the famous physicists, and one who was well-read in the Bhagavad Gita, a combination ripe for all sorts of analysis.

[33] This was a point Eberhard loved to disprove, although every instance, quote or piece of evidence he had to maintain these physicists were either atheists or, perhaps on their dour and desperate days, agnostics was torn to shreds by Professor Davis, who countered these icons of physics, The Guys That Split Atoms and Built The Bomb all believed in “a personal God (whatever that meant)” and pulled not only quotes from pages of books he’d read, not to show off but to tear Eberhards’ Book of Accidental and Random Events to shreds page by page all the while Brockelman nodded and burned the pages to stay warm in that large, vacuous classroom (located, ironically, in the Physics Department Building but the “Plasma Center”.)

[34] There was that famous quote from Einstein: “God does not play dice with the Universe,” and Bohr’s alleged retort of: “Einstein stop telling God what to do,” but both Davis and Eberhard deconstructed it quite well, each claiming the words were taken out of context and “dramatized” by those historians with “literary aspirations” (Eberhard—I’ll never forget—said this with a grimace). Davis claimed Einstein meant Spinoza’s God. That is, a God that is outside of our understanding, because we are limited in our understanding of this world so how would we be able to explain another? Eberhard did try to explain where Bohr was coming from but I don’t remember what he said. Brockleman ended the discussion getting in the last, most salient word testifying Einstein meant we (humans) were at best little kids in a big library. We stumble into this big room full of big books and little books, We look carefully and see books in an order. We know what these books are—that someone wrote them and thus there’s words in them and stories and pictures. And we know someone put them in rows and columns based on some reason. But we can’t explain why. We’re out of our depths. Years—around a decade—later I read a quote from Einstein that was nearly word for word what Brockleman said.

[35] “Samkhya” was a concept Brockleman referenced in letters and work by Oppenheimer. Apparently it is the Hindu belief that everything has an element of God in it, be it thoughts, matter, anti-matter, etc.

[36] Davis would often argue with Brockleman, too, though I could see he knew this was dangerous, because everyone loved Brockleman. Davis said it did matter and that the Big Bang is one example of how physicists can leave “the big questions unanswered” by claiming something came out of nothing, that they’re the ones clinging onto the Law of Conservation of Energy and at the same time talking about some super-dense molecule appearing somewhere randomly. Then Eberhard would step in and say something but the momentum was in Davis favor and all he had to do was sip more iced tea and scratch an itch he didn’t have on his chin to look victorious.