Wednesday 16 November 2011

Unassisted Human Flight

A few days ago: I'm standing in a drably decorated room with dark walls and a thick carpet of indeterminate colour. It is furnished with a series of three or four squat 1980s-style pine coffee tables, each one surrounded by four low, chunky, square armchairs upholstered in orange fabric. It is a waiting room, but for what? My guess is that I am in a travel agency, but travel agents don't have waiting rooms, do they? The room is empty of people, but the smell of tobacco lingers in the air, combined with that of cheap air freshener.

The armchairs and tables cover almost every square inch of floor space, so moving among them is awkward. I step up on to one of the tables, and, with a single bound, I leap over the two armchairs in between so as to land neatly on the next table. It is an impressive jump, accomplished with ease. A thought occurs to me, and I decide to see if I can jump over an entire table/chair arrangement and land on the next-but-one coffee table. This too is done effortlessly. I seem to glide through the air, setting myself down on the my target as light as a feather. That's unusual, I say to myself. I'm not usually so athletic and graceful. The only plausible explanation is that . . . I'm dreaming. There's one way to test whether or not this is real: if I can hop from this table and successfully fly the entire length of the room to land on the table at the far end, I can be absolutely certain this is a dream.

Sure enough, I am carried weightlessly across the entire distance. This is a dream, I tell myself, and not just any dream! This is a lucid dream, a dream in which I am conscious that I am dreaming. I am completely free to explore this fictitious consequence-free world as I choose. Aware that such dreams are often short-lived, arriving shortly before my eyes open, I put my time to good use. I tell myself that to attempt to leave the room will almost cause me to wake up. I allow myself to hover in the air, and begin a series of drifting and spinning manoeuvres in this unlikely waiting-room setting, all the while being careful not to bank too steeply or turn too fast, as any sudden events will shake me out of my dream. My curiosity, however, gets the better of me, and I decide to have a go at floating upside down. The unusual sensation is vivid enough to wake me.

I've read that in order to have lucid dreams on a more regular basis, you should get into the daily habit of checking whether or not you are dreaming. Scan your surroundings ten times a day with an eye for the implausible. Pinch yourself in the street. When the ingrained habit is repeated in your dream, so the theory goes, you can gain awareness of your dreams and direct them freely.

The dingy waiting room is a novelty, but the method of aerial propulsion is as old as I can remember. In every one of my recurrent dreams of flight, I have become airborne by jumping up over an object and then allowing myself to drift, as if I had pitched myself at just the right angle to be carried on a gust of wind. Both the method and the dreams certainly date back to my early childhood.

The year is 1983. I am eight years old and I am attending Gurnell Middle School. (My education career is complex. I was at Gurnell for only three years in between Montpelier Primary School and City of London School for Boys. Gurnell no longer exists. It is now Hathaway Primary School.) Among the many contradictory aspects of that strange school are its playgrounds, consisting of paving slabs bordered by grass, tarmac basketball/hockey courts, and two large grass fields bordered by gnarled old hawthorn hedgerows, of which the back field is out of bounds. (The first pornography I ever set eyes on was found among Gurnell's hawthorns, in the form of magazines left there by anonymous adult benefactors.) In between the paving slabs and the basketball courts are two landscaped knolls of grass. It is on the steeper of the pair that I am conducting my experiment.

I have recently begun reasoning as follows. The theory that unassisted human flight is impossible is just that: a theory. While it may be claimed the human body is unsuited to flight, grown-up physicists and engineers have given up too soon. Might it not be the case that the only thing required for people to fly is for the correct angle of trajectory to be found? The optimum angle, which makes flight possible, might be prohibitively narrow for practical purposes – a matter of a fraction of a fraction of a degree – but if it existed it would be worth finding? Am I not ideally placed to search for it, being a skinny eight-year-old with an entire lunch-hour to kill? And so, for an entire hour, I run up the knoll and fling myself from the top of it, only to tumble back to earth, landing safely but suddenly on the grass on the other side. (By the end of the hour, I have recruited a couple of gullible recruits to my project.) Not once in the whole lunch hour do I or my assistants fail to hit the ground. The result of the experiment: inconclusive.

While it is far easier to contemplate a large-scale transformation through a single, dramatic act (such as the invention of the aerofoil wing) than it is through the patient trial-and-error exploration of available options (How many frogs must be kissed? Ten thousand? Ten trillion?) it is nonetheless intriguing to speculate that this transformation lies under our very noses, attainable perhaps only from exactly the right angle, or less than a millimetre from where we are now, but in a dimension separate from the three we normally inhabit. The world of dreams, in which unaided flight is possible, might be closer than is commonly supposed, especially if we learn how to dream lucidly every night. Ask yourself what criteria you apply to determine whether or not you are awake.

But time will always be a factor. Memories, such as the one I have reconstructed about a lunch-hour at Gurnell Middle School in 1983, are made out of the same substance that dreams are. They fade as quickly as they form, and we must preserve them through telling, though they become less lucid, less real, each time they are recounted.

Friday 11 November 2011

Cider Philosophy

We’d had quite a lot of the 6.5% Satdownbe Cider, pressed locally at The Square and Compass, Worth Matravers, Dorset. Baz and I managed to worry Rob by explaining to him not only that there was no such thing as reality, but that this had been proven repeatedly by scientific experiment. We talked him through the two-slit experiment. Individual electrons fired randomly at a screen with two slits in appear to go through both slits simultaneously, as if they weren’t particles at all, but waves (the patterns produced on the other side of the screen show that they have, apparently, ‘interfered with themselves’). It is only when you make a measurement to see where exactly the electrons went that they go back to behaving like particles. And you can wait as long as you like before doing so. You can come back the next day, or next week or a million years and the electrons will only decide where they were at the moment you make the observation. There’s no cheating: at a quantum scale, human observation itself actively determines where the electrons are. What’s more, according to a principle called the Delayed Choice Quantum Eraser, you can’t ask a computer to make the measurement for you. If you drag the data to the wastepaper basket before looking at it, the electrons continue to seem as though they drifted through both slits, like a wave. Only when the world is observed by a human does it take on any reality.

We continued the discussion on these lines, noting that even objects as heavy as gold atoms and molecules of buckminsterfullerene had been shown to behave with quantum uncertainty. And so broad is the probability curve governing the orbits of electrons, that right at this moment the chances are that one of the atoms in your body has an electron with an orbit that extends as far as the Moon, c.240,000 miles away. Think about it: a (admittedly minuscule) bit of you is, right now, probably on the surface of the Moon.* Rob sat very quietly (which is highly unusual for him) with his head in his hands.

Rob is correct to be concerned about the non-existence of reality. It is a wee bit alarming to suppose that everything you thought you knew to be the case is just a subjective fantasy. Why, then, bother getting out of bed in the morning? Why carry on with any task, or uphold any relationship? That’s quite a depressing idea. It’s the most natural thing in the world to want to extract ethical questions of the ‘What should I do?’ type from scientific questions such as ‘What the hell is going on?’, even if no direct connection is to be made. The history of the formula ‘science says x therefore we should do y’ is a turbulent one, encompassing some well-meaning as well as some deeply flawed ideologies. This is largely because the moral minefield is as shapeless and confusing as a quantum field, and science is easily co-opted and distorted.

On the other hand, I have always been a big fan of the philosopher Epicurus (341–270 BC), who deliberately sought to build an ethical philosophy out of a natural one. His espousal of atomism (the idea  that the world is made up of microscopic individual parcels of matter) fed directly into his programme of living without fear through learning, and prizing friendship above all else. It’s hard to argue with that. The epicurean philosophy is certainly a comforting one. His description of perception, for example, specifically guarantees that the impressions we receive through our senses are bona fide, in exactly the way the two-slit experiment contests: an impossibly thin film of atoms (today we would call them ‘photons’) is given off by the object and strikes the observer’s eyeballs. According to Epicurus, what we see is literally what we get, and vice versa.

Being an epicurean (in spirit, at least) leads me to be biased towards those theories that allow for positive outcomes. Scaremongering ideas seem to breed from theories that have sprung up precisely to fill a moral void left by an absence of a law-giving deity. I don’t mean to imply we should hide behind rose-tinted spectacles, only that grey-tinted spectacles give an equally misleading impression.

This is, for me, the primary implication of a universe that is co-created between object and observer: we are both liberated and empowered to change the face of reality and be changed by it. The two-slit experiment implies that our selves and the world we see around us are enmeshed in each other. For some, the dissolved self is undeniably a frightening prospect. They may be absolutely right, but it also reminds us not to project fear and hatred into the world – we are a part of it. Even the epicureans were forced to reassert human free will by introducing quantum uncertainty – in Latin, clinamen – into their otherwise flawless logic.

Baz sensed that Rob’s mind was about to be blown, so he back-pedalled a bit. He wasn’t, he said, trying to claim that reality didn’t exist at all. He just meant that the objective part of reality might account only for 50 per cent of the bigger picture that is co-created by ourselves. He went on to associate the two halves of the universe with observer/object, or male/female, and yang/yin.

It’s an attractive cosmology, but I’m not entirely convinced. On the basis of my experience of language, particularly stories (which are one of the things the universe could be said to be composed), it appears to be 99.99 per cent imagination, held together only by the slenderest thread of reality. But these are discussions for another night of cider drinking.

* I am unable to supply scholarly citations for any of the facts in this blog entry. In the course of our drunken conversations, we have agreed that we can get away with almost any unlikely nugget of bullshit if we preface our assertions with “I think I read somewhere in New Scientist . . .”