What is the Tango?

  In Frankfurt, Germany, a Russian physicist thinks that he’s spotted a sociology of basic particles. Now he wants to talk to photons.

In Tel Aviv, Israel, a physicist/microbiologist has been studying bacterial colonies and thinks he sees a linguistic pattern—a Chomskyite deep structure, a language—in the communication between single-celled beasts. In a paper published in the leading journal of physics, Physica A, the same Israeli physicist has made an even more shocking claim—that bacterial colonies have consciousness.

In Moscow, a mathematician/physicist at the Keldysh Institute of Applied Mathematics of the Russian Academy of Sciences has been pondering quantum mechanics and has concluded that electrons and photons have to make decisions, they have to make up their “minds.”

And in New York City, the founder of a field called paleopsychology thinks that there are common threads between the German’s sociology of quantum mechanics, the Russian’s “emperor electrons,” the Israeli’s sentences “spoken” chemically by bacteria, the Israeli’s bacterial mass mind, and the mass passions aroused by superstars of human culture and of history, from Michael Jackson and Prince to Hitler and Osama bin Laden.

In modern science all of this should be viewed as blasphemy. It’s anthropomorphism, clear and simple. Humans make decisions. Photons and electrons don’t. Humans have language. Bacteria have no such thing. They can’t. They don’t have tongues. They don’t have that critical churner of words and paragraphs—a brain.

The time may have arrived to remove this taboo. Those who’ve labored hard to purge anthropomorphism from their vocabulary may have been the real sinners. They may have been anthropo-chauvinists in disguise.

When we apply words like attraction and repulsion--words that come from human physical and emotional experience--to quarks, protons, and electrons, we may simply be playing on a basic fact of nature. Evolution--and I mean the full sweep of evolution from the big bang to today--is iterative and fractal. The same simple principles show up over and over again. Principles like attraction and repulsion are the tools with which the self-construction of the universe began. They ruled over quarks, photons, and electrons 13.5 billion years ago. They were the master forces of the big bang.

The human high plateau of consciousness, emotion, language, culture, and immersion in the opinions of others is unique. But it's just another form of quark-dance, one it took quarks 13.5 billion years to invent.

The practical consequence? Sometimes bio-patterns can help solve puzzles in physics. Sometimes clues from human psychology can help solve problems in microbiology.

I’m the New Yorker mentioned above, the founder of paleopsychology. I call the social dance-steps of the inanimate and living cosmos The Big Bang Tango. And the concept of the Big Bang Tango is beginning to catch fire.

When the Tel Aviv physicist studying bacteria, Eshel Ben-Jacob—head of the Physics Department at the Raymond & Beverly Sackler Faculty of Exact Sciences at Tel-Aviv University--sent a draft of his upcoming article, “Reflections on Biochemical Linguistics of Bacteria,” I scribbled the usual notations in the margins. One note pointed out that the paper’s facts hint that bacteria have something that strongly resembles human culture. Then I gave the reasons. Ben-Jacob and his co-writers felt the comparison was accurate, and included it in their text.

When the Moscow mathematician, Pavel Kurakin, at the Keldysh Institute of Applied Mathematics of the Russian Academy of Sciences, sent his paper on “Toy Quantum Mechanics with Hidden Variables,” it bristled with forbidden words. According to Kurakin’s theory, a quantum particle receives “queries” from particle detectors. Those detectors “duel” for the particle’s attention. Some of these “pretenders” receive only “refuse” signals. One lucky detector wins the particle’s favor and is blessed with the particle’s visit. In other words, there is competition and communication—a basic Darwinian twosome—at work on the quantum level.

How, I asked does a quantum particle make its decision on which signal to accept?
Who wins what Kurakin call this “lottery”? Says Pavel, “…Query signal intensity is proportional to |psi|2. Detectors win proportionally to their query intensities.”

In other words, in the quantum world, the strongest thrive. But the weak subordinate or die—a rule that shows up in the evolution of stars, galaxies, living beings, minds, emotions, politics, and history.

What’s wrong with these conversations? What’s wrong with Kurakin’s characterization of the rules of the cosmos as “natural fascism”? What’s wrong with Ben-Jacob’s claim that bacteria “send messages,” use chemical “words,” have “a chemical language,” and “can conduct a dialogue”? Or that bacterial “swimmers enter a ‘consultation phase’, during which they divide and communicate until a ‘collective decision,’ is reached”? Or worse yet, that bacteria have “chemical foreplay,” “chemical courtship,” “interpret” the state of the colony, reach a “majority vote,” and, if they have “valuable information announce this fact”? What’s wrong? Every single word of this is scientific heresy.

Plastering human qualities on everything we see is precisely what science has labored mightily to avoid since roughly 1650. Anthropomorphism is the stuff of witches and Church elders—of magic, superstition, and religion. Anthropomorphism carries all the Dark-Age intellectual baggage that folks like Galileo, Hooke, van Leeuwenhoek, Newton, and Voltaire snatched with difficulty from the fists of clerics, alchemists, and potion makers and threw away.

There's a claim implicit in the work of the colleagues I've stitched together on the Internet, a claim that in my work is as explicit as hell: many of the patterns we regard as solely human are not. We share basic rules and stratagems not just with ants, lizards, and chimps.

It's beginning to look as if we share such basics as communication with quarks, abilities like decision making with quantum particles, and complexities like the deep structure of language with bacteria.

Our aversion to anthropomorphism is arrogance in disguise. It's anthropocentrism--a failure to see that we carry in us patterns we've inherited from ten billion years of inanimate evolution, evolution that built the raw material of your finger tips, your blood, your brain, Bara's, my wife’s, Chris Anderson’s, and mine.

We woke up in the 20th Century to something Aristotle once suspected—that we are political animals. Are we clever? Yes. But we are clever beasts. Thanks to 20th Century figures like Wolfgang Koehler, Paul MacLean, Neil Miller, William Hamilton, E.O. Wilson, and Franz de Waal, we caved in and finally fessed up to the fact that many of the things we do and feel we share with reptiles, lab rats, apes, and chimps.

Science is on the brink of yet another revelation. We share many of our “human” qualities with more than just our cousins in the clan of DNA. We share these qualities with atoms, stars, and galaxies.

Is this airy-fairy, New Age wishful thinking, or is this genuine science? If it’s valid, science is in for more than just a minor change. It may be on the brink of what many of its practitioners wish for consciously but fear deep in their hearts, a cataclysmic viewpoint-flip, one that could undermine the validity of their life’s work—a Thomas Kuhnian paradigm shift.

The paradigm shift is coming. I think I hear it rumbling. In fact, as the New Yorker whose been splicing these disparate strands of the Big Bang Tango together, I’ve staked my life on it.

The Man Who Talks to Photons

Cast Of Characters
(The scientists who’ve been key players in the internet dialogs that have lent support to this cosmo-psychological view)

Eshel Ben-Jacob is the head of the Physics Department at the Raymond & Beverly Sackler Faculty of Exact Sciences at Tel-Aviv University. He is president of the Israeli Physical Society, a condensed matter physicist, and creator of Tel Aviv University’s program in nano-engineering. Ben-Jacob's articles appear at roughly three-month intervals in Physica A, Contemporary Physics, Nature, and (once) on the cover of The Scientific American.

Unlike his colleagues in physics, who focus on the inanimate and leave the peculiarities of living things to biologists, Ben-Jacob presides over two biological research laboratories—one in bacterial research and the other in neural research.

Ben-Jacob’s interests crept from physics into biology when he noticed a simple fact: bacterial colonies spread in fractal patterns. Those same patterns show up in inanimate objects like crystals, snowflakes, and stones. So Eshel wondered, do these patterns appear in bacteria because the one-celled beasts are forced to follow the rules that shape rocks and blizzards? Do they operate on an automatic pilot provided by the rules outlined in materials science?

After nine years of research on bacterial colonies, Ben-Jacob came to a startling conclusion. Bacterial colonies generate a “creative web,” a mass-parallel-processing network with the equivalent of trillions of microprocessors. One of Eshel’s papers in the leading peer-reviewed physics journal, Physica A, put forth a “proof” of an audacious and utterly heretical claim: that a bacterial colony has consciousness, is capable of reengineering its own genome, and is able to come up with novel solutions to problems no bacterial colony has ever encountered before. Bacterial colonies can think and can invent!

Ben-Jacob has gone further. He proposed in Physica A that the creative capabilities of bacteria call for a radical shift in Darwinian theory, one that is “orthogonal” to current interpretations. What does orthogonal mean? So far off the map that it’s almost in outer space.

Ben-Jacob and I have worked together on the relationship between physics, biology, and human behavior since roughly 1997. I’ve been thanked in his journal articles—particularly those on entropy.

Israela Becker, a physicist at Tel-Aviv Academic College of Engineering, was one of Ben-Jacob’s students. Now she is one of his colleagues and co-writers. Becker’s usual output focuses on the traditional concerns of physicists:

"Electron Transfer and Charge Separation in Clusters," in the journal Advanced Chemical Physics
“Photodetachment studies of extended excited states in I{^-}Xe{_n} clusters (n=1-54)” in The Journal of Chemical Physics
“Photoelectron spectroscopy studies of loosely bound excess electrons in clusters.” In Tel Aviv University’s AAS Database

Now she’s veered into Eshel’s territory and beyond it into mine—mass behavior from the level of quarks and protons to that of bacteria, lizards, and humans. She is the co-writer with Eshel of the upcoming journal article, “Reflections on Biochemical Linguistics of Bacteria.” She’s asked for my comment. I’ve given it.

Pavel Kurakin is a mathematician at the Keldysh Institute of Applied Mathematics of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He moved into quantum mechanics by accident. He says he actually had very little interest in quantum theory until his superiors at the Keldysh Institute of Applied Mathematics asked him to teach courses in the field at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (the school from which Kurakin graduated in 1993).

Then came a quantum epiphany: to quote Kurakin’s broken English, “as soon as I read Brian Arthur [an economist and a member of the Santa Fe Institute] and Richard Dawkins [author of The Selfish Gene]… I found that I can't accept all this magic.”

Kurakin’s quantum alternative to “all this magic” is what he calls “Toy Quantum Mechanics”.

Kurakin and I have now been collaborating for several months to explore how his toy photons make their decisions.

Paul Werbos, in Washington, DC, is the National Academy of Sciences’ Program Director for the Electrical and Communications Systems Division’s Control, Networks & Computational Intelligence Program. Werbos is also involved with Neural Network Computation and Control, Learning and Self-organizing Systems, and Biologically-inspired Computation. Werbos is a science prodigy who first dove into the field at the age of six. His Harvard doctoral thesis, The Roots of Backpropagation: From Ordered Derivatives to Neural Networks and Political Forecasting, is said to have “laid the foundation of backpropagation.” Back propagation is what links Werbos to Kurakin.

Kurakin’s photons receive queries from potential receivers. They process messages that have traveled backwards in time. These are pleas sent from the future to the present, prodding the present to make up its “mind.”

Werbos, like Kurakin, believes in backward causality—in the influence of the future on the now. He is convinced that time can shuttle backwards. And he’s done the math to prove it. Whether that math accurately reflects reality is one of physics’ constant problems, and this is true for Werbos’ work.

Does time really travel backwards, as Werbos believes? And if so, do basic particles manage to pull off that very human thing we call communication? Do they commune with the future before making their next move? In a sense, my theories say, they do.

Raoul Nakhmanson is the man who, according to Pavel Kurakin, is dead serious about talking to photons. He is a shadowy figure whose background I have not yet been able to excavate. Kurakin discovered Nakhmanson in mid May of 2003 and was astonished by the extent to which Nakhmanson’s papers mirrored the thoughts that Kurakin and I were tossing around.

In my book Global Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century, I proposed that elementary particles communicate. In other words I proposed that we humans inherited the basic tools with which we get through to each other from the elementary particles that were your ancestors and mine, elders that remain within us today, making up the stuff of your toes, your nose, your muscles, bones, and fingernails. You and I are walking heaps of 13.5-billion-year-old protons and electrons that have hung in since the big bang. The two basic signals of protons and electrons are attraction and repulsion cues.

Another of our dialoguers is Valerius Geist, Professor Emeritus of Environmental Science at the University of Calgary, President of Wildlife Heritage Ltd, and the author of thirteen books. Geist, in his classic 1978 book Life Strategies, says that all animal communications, including ours, boil down to attraction and repulsion cues—come hither signals and signals that send others scuttling away.

That’s attraction and repulsion—the language that bonds electrons to protons. The language that forces electrons to flee each others’ presence.

Nakhmanson’s papers give clues that he is thinking along the same lines. Try these titles out for their “anthropomorphic” qualities:

“Quantum mechanics as a sociology of matter”
“Informational Interpretation of quantum physics”
And “Mind-body interpretation of quantum mechanics”

Nakhmanson is a Russian living in Frankfurt Germany. We—Pavel and I—have no idea of what he does for a living. Which leads to a question. Is he legit? Apparently, he is. He’s contributed chapters to such basic physics reference books as:

Waves and Particles in Light and Matter (Plenum Press, New York, 1994)
And Frontiers of Fundamental Physics (Plenum Press, New York, 1994)

The papers in which Nakhmanson has the audacity to describe basic particles in “human” terms are published on the website of the Los Alamos National Laboratory e-arXiv. His material, much of which is in Russian, has been published by the Institute of Semiconductor Physics in Novosibirsk. And he’s lectured on advanced physics at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt. So, yes, Nakhmanson is offering up ideas that many scientific dogmatists would consider fruity as a Raisinet. But he is definitely legit.

Greg Bear is the science fiction author who Paul Werbos thinks is one of the few humans on the planet to have a feel for the physics that will startle us five years from now. Bear is not your usual fiction author. He has a vast network of scientists to whom he sends his manuscripts for review. He synthesizes material in a manner that amazes you. He is totally cross-disciplinary, yet has a fine-grained grasp of scientific detail few scientists achieve.

Bear is said to be the most award-winning science fiction author alive today. Has won:

The Nebula Award for his short story, "Petra."
The Nebula Award for best novella, "Hardfought"
The Nebula Award for best novelette, "Blood Music"
The Hugo Award for "Blood Music"
The Prix Apollo in France for "Blood Music"
The Hugo Award for best short story, "Tangents"
The Nebula Award for best short story, "Tangents"
The Nebula Award for best novel, Moving Mars
The Nebula Award for best novel, Darwin’s Radio
The Endeavour Award for best novel published by a Northwest science fiction author, Dinosaur Summer
The Endeavour Award for best novel published by a Northwest science fiction author, Darwin’s Radio

Bear is also a longstanding member of a group I founded and run—the International Paleopsychology Project. I’ve pulled him into the way-past-midnight brainstorming sessions with Kurakin, Werbos, and Ben-Jacob that have consolidated this movement to biologize the cosmos by uncovering the cosmic rules beneath biology’s mask.

Finally, there’s that nefarious character Howard Bloom, the madman at the center of this change. Here are a few opinions on this would-be windmill-toppler and potential writer of this article:

“For those who worry that our ingenuity has upset nature's equilibrium, Bloom has a message that is both reassuring and sobering. ‘We are nature incarnate,’ he writes. ‘We are tools of her probings and if, indeed, we suffer and we fail, from our lessons she will learn which way in the future not to turn.’” The New Yorker

“I am speechless with admiration, overwhelmed by virtuosity.” Walter J. Freeman, M.D. Walter J. Freeman Neurophysiology Lab, UC Berkeley, author How Brains Make Up Their Mind

“Howard Bloom should be taking notes on what he does every hour of the day. He is single-handedly creating a scientific revolution.” Christopher Boehm, director of the Jane Goodall Research Center


God is not a being, he is an aspiration, a gift, a vision, a goal to seek. Ours is the responsibility of making a cruel universe turn just, of turning pains to understandings and new insights into joy, of creating ways to soar the skies for generations yet to come, of fashioning wings with which our children’s children shall overcome, of making worlds of fantasy materialize as reality, of mining and transforming our greatest gifts--our passions, our imaginings, our pains, our insecurities, and our lusts. This is the work of deity, and deity is a power that resides in us. -- Howard Bloom

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