Science

Mere coincidence or divine truth?

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A niggling curiosity about colors started the whole thing. “For many years, I found myself idly wondering if the name value of colors mentioned in the Bible had any relationship to their wave frequency,” says Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Professor Haim Shore.

“In the scheme of things, that’s an outrageous suggestion – why would anyone think that the Hebrew name for colors mentioned in the Bible – red, green, yellow – would bear any relationship to the wave frequency of the color itself?” he asks. “Finally, just for fun, I checked it out. When I saw the results, I was stunned. It was a heck of a coincidence, but the two were linearly related.”

“The Hebrew word for the color actually matched the color’s wave frequency,” Shore says. “How could that be?”

Shore’s methodology was relatively simple. He took the Hebrew names of five colors that appear in the Bible – red (adom), yellow (tzahov), green (yerakon), blue (tchelet) and purple or magenta (argaman) – and calculated a numerical value for each word by adding the total values of the letters, with aleph as one, bet as two, etc. Then he plotted them on a graph. The vertical axis charted the colors’ wave frequencies, which are scientifically established, while along the horizontal axis, the ‘CNV’, Color Name Value, appeared. When it was complete, “I was astonished,” Shore recalls.

“The five points on the graph formed a straight line – which means that the names of the colors related directly to their established wave frequencies.” It was a straight-out statistical analysis, Shore says. “I didn’t manipulate a single number in doing the analysis.”

“I didn’t plot anything at all until I had all the data,” he says. “But when I saw it, I was like a lion in a cage, pacing around. I couldn’t believe it. Then I went on to other words in the Hebrew Bible, plotting the value of the letters against known scientific data. The whole thing blew me away.”

“What I found is that there’s an astonishing number of ‘coincidences’ in which the Hebrew name for some ‘entity’ in the Bible relates directly to that entity’s scientifically established physical property,” Shore continues. “I began recording it all, and finally published it in a book which contains about 20 different analyses – statistical, scientifically verifiable findings.”

“I have no intention of trying to tell anyone what this means, or how this information should be interpreted. All I did was publish what I found,” he says. “As a scientist, as a matter of integrity, I felt compelled to offer what I’d found for discussion.”

Shore’s book Coincidences in the Bible and in Biblical Hebrew offers dozens of incidents in which the Hebrew words in the Bible offer hidden information about the objects or people they represent, information which, in many cases, couldn’t have been known or measured until modern times.

“This is not gematria,” Shore says. “Gematria, adopted by rabbis and Jewish Bible interpreters, suggests that if two Hebrew words share the same numerical value, there’s then a ‘secret’ that binds them together. By contrast, the Hebrew word, ‘heraion’ (pregnancy) has the same numerical value as the duration of human pregnancy, 271 days.”

“That is not gematria,” he insists, “nor is this a ‘Bible Code’ sort of thing, with overtones of prophecy. What I have attempted to do, with as plain and non-technical means as possible, was to offer several quantitative analyses that demonstrate that major physical properties are probably reflected in the numerical values of Hebrew words.”

Colors were one thing. Celestial objects were another – moon, earth and sun. “It is well known from Kabbalistic literature that the letters of the Hebrew alphabet were created first, and that thereafter, by use of these letters, God created all the worlds. Ancient Jewish sources repeatedly stress that idea,” he says.

“Could there be a linkage between numerical values of biblical words and certain physical properties, as demonstrated by the heraion example?” Shore asks. “In Hebrew, yareach is moon, eretz is earth, and shemesh is sun. One thing that distinguishes the three bodies is their size, expressed by the diameters. I used their diameters as listed by NASA, and plotted them on a graph, just as I did with the colors.

“On the horizontal axis is the numerical value of the Hebrew word, on the vertical axis is the planetary diameters from NASA (on a log scale),” he continues. “To my astonishment, the phenomenon repeated itself. The three points aligned themselves on a straight line – an exact mathematical relationship would have given a linear correlation of ‘1,’ whereas these three points had a linear correlation of 0.999. Again I thought, ‘What an amazing coincidence!'”

IT’S NOT as though the Tiberias-born Shore was intellectually primed to believe what he was seeing. “My research has been in the areas of statistical modeling and quality and reliability engineering,” he says. “I graduated from the Technion in Industrial Engineering and Management, received a Masters in Operations Research, plus a BA in Philosophy and Psychology, then a PhD in Statistics from Bar Ilan. I’ve worked as a management consultant, taught at Tel Aviv University, then came to BGU in 1996. But beyond that, I’m an engineer. I don’t accept anything as true unless there is quantitative analysis – without that, everything is debatable.”

“But not this,” Shore says. “It’s a universal principle of engineering that if you have two sets of data, you put them in ascending order, plot one set on a horizontal axis and the other on a vertical axis and they fall on a straight line, that means both data sets are measuring the same thing, only on different scales.”

Nor did he start out believing what the Sages had written, that within the Hebrew words lay an additional layer of information, hidden to us, which can be exposed by relating to the numerical value of the word.

“Not at all,” he says. “For many years I was utterly convinced all that was based on superstition – pure myth, no different from those provided by any number of other religions and cultures. But what I was seeing made me think twice about what was written in the Talmud, like in Midrash Rabba, where it says, ‘Thus was God observing the Torah and creating the universe,’ and in Berachot, ‘Bezalel knew how to assemble letters with which Heaven and Earth had been created.'”

Shore’s postulations don’t amount to scientific evidence, he says, but he’s now moved beyond terming the multitude of correlations he found as mere “coincidences.”

“Initially, I related to these incidents as curiosities, things that had no scientific basis. But over the years, I’ve come to see these ‘coincidences’ evolve into something more,” he says. “By 2006 I’d reached the conclusion that the number of instances I’d assembled had reached a critical mass, which justified putting some of it into print.”

One of the things that fascinates Shore is how modern science and technology reflects or reinforces Biblical terminology. “The word ‘year’ – in Hebrew shana – is numerically equivalent to 355, which happens to be the average duration of the lunar (moon-based) Hebrew year,” Shore explains. “Or ozen which means ‘ear’ in Hebrew, which comes from the same root as the Hebrew word for ‘balance.’ That’s curious, because it was only at the end of the 19th Century that we discovered that the mechanism responsible for the body balance resides in the ear.”

Another curiosity relates to the name of the Biblical character, Laban, one of the more menacing personalities in Genesis. A passage in the Passover Haggada reads, “Go and realize what Laban the Aramean wished to inflict on Jacob our Patriarch. Pharaoh decreed against the males only, however Laban wished to uproot all.”

“Laban represents a total loss of Jewish identity,” Shore says. “He wanted everything mixed up, with no one, or no culture, having any distinguishing features. He mixed his children, his wives, his religious faith, his language and his property. He idealized the ‘everything goes’ maxim – the ‘global village, as we’d say today – where everyone and everything is just alike.”

“As every Hebrew school kid knows, the name ‘Laban’ means ‘white’ – which is extraordinary,” he continues. “‘Laban’ is the only personal name in the Bible that’s also the name of a color. Up until 1666, when Isaac Newton came along, every scientist since Aristotle believed that white was a single basic color. Not until Newton passed a thin beam of sunlight through a glass prism did anyone recognize the spectrum of colors. White, Newton argued, is really a mixture of many different types of rays that are refracted at slightly different angles, with each ray producing a different color. White, then, is a mixture of all colors.”

“Isn’t that bizarre, if it’s just a coincidence? That in the Bible, Laban, the man who mixed everything up, should be named ‘white’?” Shore asks.

THE BOOK of Genesis, especially the creation story, comes in for special treatment. Together with Prof. Yehuda Radday, Shore analyzed Genesis and published a book in 1985.

“Prof. Radday, who passed away on Sept. 11, 2001, was one of my closest friends. We first met when I was a teaching assistant back in the 1970s and he was affiliated with the Technion doing statistical analysis of Biblical texts,” Shore recalls. “At that time, the theories of German-born Julius Wellhausen were in vogue, and we set out to statistically test Wellhausen’s theory that there were multiple authors for Genesis.”

Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918) was a German Bible scholar who argued that the Pentateuch, the Five Books of Moses, were not written by Moses but rather resulted from oral traditions that evolved from a nomadic culture which, relatively recently, had been pieced together. Wellhausen named the four sources “J”, “E”, “D” and “P” distinguishing individual verses and segments on the basis of terminology and by perceived differences in philosophy. For many decades, Wellhausen’s theories enjoyed general acceptance among Biblical scholars.

“Yehuda and I published our research – which statistically affirmed the position that the book of Genesis was homogenous with respect to authorship (namely, a single author) – in several research papers and ultimately in a book published by the Biblical Institute Press in Rome (Romae E Pontificio Instituto Biblico) of the Vatican,” he tells. “So when I began looking at the book of Genesis again, I already had considerable background.”

One of the elements Shore analyzed was the Biblical timeline of creation. In the Genesis story, the universe was created in six “days,” whereas in modern day cosmology, it’s measured in billions of years, which sets off the faith vs. science debate.

“I started by taking the events of the first chapter of Genesis – just the facts as given, no interpretation. ‘Light’ was created on the first day; on the second – the sky; on the fourth – the sun and the moon were set in place; on the fifth – marine and bird life; and on the sixth day, according to oral Torah, Adam and Eve were created at the end of the 14th hour,” he says.

“I took the six points and correlated each Biblical day – ‘1 day,’ ‘2 day’ – with the scientifically established time period. For example, science has established that galaxies started to be formed about 11.8 billion years ago, the sun and the moon, 4.5 billion years ago, etc. I plotted the cosmological age on the vertical axis and the Biblical timeline (day – one through six) on the horizontal axis. I found them to be arranged in a straight line,” Shore says.

“Is that possible that the two sets of data, the biblical and the scientific, represent the same ‘timeline,’ just expressed in different time scales?” he asks.

“Statistical analysis shows that the probability that would happen by chance alone is less than 0.0021%,” he continues. “If you take out day 2 and day 5 – there’s scientific debate about when life as we know it came into existence, or when exactly large scale structures had appeared in the early universe – you can plot just four points. The probability of those four points aligning themselves on a straight line, the way they did, by chance alone is still less than 0.0165%.”

Shore now believes he might have used a word other than ‘coincidences’ in the book title. “The title reflected my attitude towards many of the examples given in the book. But during the short span of about two or three months when I feverishly wrote it all down, something changed. I’d now say it’s highly probable that hidden information in biblical words supplements the exposed information submitted.”

What did Shore hope to gain by publishing his findings? “I knew very well I was putting my reputation on the line with this book,” he says. “What I hoped would happen is that it would start a discussion, that people would begin to talk about it.”

“That hasn’t happened so far, probably because I’ve been reluctant to publicize it,” Shore admits. “I finally went ahead because the data is significant. Everyone can figure out for himself what it all means – I’m not saying anything here about God or the Bible or biblical Hebrew. But there’s something here that should be discussed and analyzed further.”

Several more ‘coincidences’ have helped shape Shore’s life. At present, he is statistically processing data received from a web-based feedback survey, conducted at the end of the 18th Maccabiah. “We’re measuring participants’ satisfaction, which involves analyzing questionnaires submitted by e-mail to athletes, delegation officials and Maccabiah staff,” he says.

“The Maccabiah is special to me because in 1932, my father, Daniel, came to Tel Aviv to participate in the first Maccabiah as a member of the Polish football team. Once here, he stayed – which meant that he escaped the Holocaust (most of his family did not). Because of that, I told the Maccabiah Organizing Committee, who had approached me with a request to conduct this feedback survey, that I would conduct the survey and analyze its results free of charge, on a voluntary basis only,” Shore recalls.

Then, too, Shore was stunned to find that he wasn’t the first Shore to write a book on Genesis. “My father’s grandfather, Baruch Schorr, was a famous cantor in Lemberg, called Lvov today,” he says. “He wrote two books, one about Ecclesiastes and another about Genesis that he named Bechor Schorr. I only learned about Baruch’s book of Genesis – which was published in Lemberg in 1873 – long after my book about Genesis, with Prof. Radday, was published.”

“That’s just one more coincidence,” Shore adds.

in Jerusalem Post

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MORADAS FILOSOFAIS – Princípios e Métodos da Arte Real

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palacio-quinta-da-regaleira

A Fundação Cultursintra promove, a partir de 24 de Outubro, um ciclo cultural sobre a temática das Moradas Filosofais, propondo-se assim dar maior visibilidade a uma matéria que, em Portugal, permanece ainda arredada do main-stream cultural.

O Colóquio Internacional decorrerá a 24 e 25 de Outubro, contando com a presença de especialistas das diferentes disciplinas envolvidas, como a Arquitectura, a Arte do Jardim, a Pintura, a Música, a Literatura, a Filosofia, a Emblemática e a Heráldica, bem como de amantes incondicionais da Arte, que dedicam as suas vidas ao estudo e divulgação das mais notáveis mansões e jardins europeus, regidos por Hermes.

No âmbito deste ciclo, realizar-se-ão, em fins-de-semana posteriores ao colóquio, visitas guiadas a alguns exemplos notáveis de arquitectura em território luso, cujos projecto, construção e/ou decoração foram animados por um sentido hermético.

24 DE OUTUBRO (SÁBADO)
10h00 Inscrições * | Visita guiada à Quinta da Regaleira
12h30 Inauguração do “Laboratório Alquímico” no Palácio da Regaleira
13h00 Almoço
14h30 Abertura do Colóquio Internacional
14h40 1ª SESSÃO
Richard Khaitzine “Les Demeures philosophales dans l’art religieux”
António de Macedo “Mansões Herméticas e Geometria Sagrada – do Tabernáculo
no deserto ao “Número” da Ordem de Cristo”
15h40 Debate | 16h00 Intervalo
16h30 2ª SESSÃO
Rémi Boyer “Initiation au Jardin et Initiation dans la Cité”
Manuel J. Gandra “Emblemática nas Mansões Filosofais – I”
17h30 Intervalo | 17h45 2ª SESSÃO (cont.)
Ferdinando Rizzardo “La Case dell’ Alchimista a Valdenogher”
João Luis Susano “Quinta da Regaleira – Presença de Baphomet”
18h30 Debate
19h00 Encerramento

* Condições de acesso Colóquio: € 50 | Estudantes € 30
Participação apenas num dia: € 30 | Estudantes € 20

25 DE OUTUBRO (DOMINGO)
10h30 1ª SESSÃO
Richard Khaitzine “Le domaine de Bagatelle, une Demeure Philosophale de l’architecture civile”
Manuel J. Gandra “Emblemática nas Mansões Filosofais – II”
11h30 Coffee-break
12h00 2ª SESSÃO
François Chesneau “Une demeure philosophale au cœur de la France: l’Hôtel Lallemant de Bourges”
12h30 Debate | 13h00 Almoço
14h30 3ª SESSÃO
Visionamento do documentário sobre Maurice Baskine, pintor alquimista
Paul Sanda “Os surrealistas de Cordes sur Ciel”
Paulo Brandão “Skryabin e o Acorde Místico”
16h15 Debate | 16h30 Intervalo
17h00 4ª SESSÃO
Ferdinando Rizzardo “Ermetismo a Venezia e Libreria Marciana”
João Cruz Alves “Lima de Freitas e a Topologia do Imaginal”
18h15 Debate | 18h30 Conclusões e encerramento do Colóquio
19h00 Jantar de convívio no Palácio da Regaleira
(Participação no jantar sujeita a inscrição prévia – € 25)

Human evolution – Why Music?

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Biologists are addressing one of humanity’s strangest attributes, its all-singing, all-dancing culture

“IF MUSIC be the food of love, play on, give me excess of it.” And if not? Well, what exactly is it for? The production and consumption of music is a big part of the economy. The first use to which commercial recording, in the form of Edison’s phonographs, was to bring music to the living rooms and picnic tables of those who could not afford to pay live musicians. Today, people are so surrounded by other people’s music that they take it for granted, but as little as 100 years ago singsongs at home, the choir in the church and fiddlers in the pub were all that most people heard.

Other appetites, too, have been sated even to excess by modern business. Food far beyond the simple needs of stomachs, and sex (or at least images of it) far beyond the needs of reproduction, bombard the modern man and woman, and are eagerly consumed. But these excesses are built on obvious appetites. What appetite drives the proliferation of music to the point where the average American teenager spends 1½-2½ hours a day—an eighth of his waking life—listening to it?

Well, that fact—that he, or she, is a teenager—supports one hypothesis about the function of music. Around 40% of the lyrics of popular songs speak of romance, sexual relationships and sexual behaviour. The Shakespearean theory, that music is at least one of the foods of love, has a strong claim to be true. The more mellifluous the singer, the more dexterous the harpist, the more mates he attracts.

A second idea that is widely touted is that music binds groups of people together. The resulting solidarity, its supporters suggest, might have helped bands of early humans to thrive at the expense of those that were less musical.

Both of these ideas argue that musical ability evolved specifically—that it is, if you like, a virtual organ as precisely crafted to its purpose as the heart or the spleen. The third hypothesis, however, is that music is a cross between an accident and an invention. It is an accident because it is the consequence of abilities that evolved for other purposes. And it is an invention because, having thus come into existence, people have bent it to their will and made something they like from it.

She loves you
Shakespeare’s famous quote was, of course, based on commonplace observation. Singing, done well, is certainly sexy. But is its sexiness the reason it exists? Charles Darwin thought so. Twelve years after he published “On the Origin of Species”, which described the idea of natural selection, a second book hit the presses. “The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex” suggested that the need to find a mate being the pressing requirement that it is, a lot of the features of any given animal have come about not to aid its survival, but to aid its courtship. The most famous example is the tail of the peacock. But Darwin suggested human features, too, might be sexually selected in this way—and one of those he lit on was music.

In this case, unlike that of natural selection, Darwin’s thinking did not set the world alight. But his ideas were revived recently by Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary biologist who works at the University of New Mexico. Dr Miller starts with the observations that music is a human universal, that it is costly in terms of time and energy to produce, and that it is, at least in some sense, under genetic control. About 4% of the population has “amusia” of one sort or another, and at least some types of amusia are known to be heritable. Universality, costliness and genetic control all suggest that music has a clear function in survival or reproduction, and Dr Miller plumps for reproduction.

One reason for believing this is that musical productivity—at least among the recording artists who have exploited the phonograph and its successors over the past hundred years or so—seems to match the course of an individual’s reproductive life. In particular, Dr Miller studied jazz musicians. He found that their output rises rapidly after puberty, reaches its peak during young-adulthood, and then declines with age and the demands of parenthood.

As is often the case with this sort of observation, it sounds unremarkable; obvious, even. But uniquely human activities associated with survival—cooking, say—do not show this pattern. People continue to cook at about the same rate from the moment that they have mastered the art until the moment they die or are too decrepit to continue. Moreover, the anecdotal evidence linking music to sexual success is strong. Dr Miller often cites the example of Jimi Hendrix, who had sex with hundreds of groupies during his brief life and, though he was legally unmarried, maintained two long-term liaisons. The words of Robert Plant, the lead singer of Led Zeppelin, are also pertinent: “I was always on my way to love. Always. Whatever road I took, the car was heading for one of the greatest sexual encounters I’ve ever had.”

Another reason to believe the food-of-love hypothesis is that music fulfils the main criterion of a sexually selected feature: it is an honest signal of underlying fitness. Just as unfit peacocks cannot grow splendid tails, so unfit people cannot sing well, dance well (for singing and dancing go together, as it were, like a horse and carriage) or play music well. All of these activities require physical fitness and dexterity. Composing music requires creativity and mental agility. Put all of these things together and you have a desirable mate.

Improve your singing…
A third reason to believe it is that music, or something very like it, has evolved in other species, and seems to be sexually selected in those species, too. Just as the parallel evolution of mouse-like forms in marsupial and placental mammals speaks of similar ways of life, so the parallel evolution of song in birds, whales and gibbons, as well as humans, speaks of a similar underlying function. And females of these animals can be fussy listeners. It is known from several species of birds, for example, that females prefer more complex songs from their suitors, putting males under pressure to evolve the neurological apparatus to create and sing them.

And yet, and yet. Though Dr Miller’s arguments are convincing, they do not feel like the whole story. A man does not have to be gay to enjoy the music of an all-male orchestra, even if he particularly appreciates the soprano who comes on to sing the solos. A woman, meanwhile, can enjoy the soprano even while appreciating the orchestra on more than one level. Something else besides sex seems to be going on.

The second hypothesis for music’s emergence is that it had a role not just in helping humans assess their mates, but also in binding bands of people together in the evolutionary past. Certainly, it sometimes plays that role today. It may be unfashionable in Britain to stand for the national anthem, but two minutes watching the Last Night of the Proms, an annual music festival, on television will serve to dispel any doubts about the ability of certain sorts of music to instil collective purpose in a group of individuals. In this case the cost in time and energy is assumed to be repaid in some way by the advantages of being part of a successful group.

The problem with this hypothesis is that it relies on people not cheating and taking the benefits without paying the costs. One way out of that dilemma is to invoke a phenomenon known to biologists as group selection. Biologically, this is a radical idea. It requires the benefits of solidarity to be so great that groups lacking them are often extinguished en bloc. Though theoretically possible, this is likely to be rare in practice. However, some researchers have suggested that the invention of weapons such as spears and bows and arrows made intertribal warfare among early humans so lethal that group selection did take over. It has been invoked, for example, to explain the contradictory manifestations of morality displayed in battle: tenderness towards one’s own side; ruthlessness towards the enemy. In this context the martial appeal of some sorts of music might make sense.

Robin Dunbar of Oxford University does not go quite that far, but unlike Dr Miller he thinks that the origins of music need to be sought in social benefits of group living rather than the sexual benefits of seduction. He does not deny that music has gone on to be sexually selected (indeed, one of his students, Konstantinos Kaskatis, has shown that Dr Miller’s observation about jazz musicians also applies to 19th-century classical composers and contemporary pop singers). But he does not think it started that way.

…and your grooming
Much of Dr Dunbar’s career has been devoted to trying to explain the development of sociality in primates. He believes that one of the things that binds groups of monkeys and apes together is grooming. On the face of it, grooming another animal is functional. It keeps the pelt clean and removes parasites. But it is an investment in someone else’s well-being, not your own. Moreover, animals often seem to groom each other for far longer than is strictly necessary to keep their fur pristine. That time could, in principle, be used for something else. Social grooming, rather like sexual selection, is therefore a costly (and thus honest) signal. In this case though, that signal is of commitment to the group rather than reproductive prowess.

Dr Dunbar thinks language evolved to fill the role of grooming as human tribes grew too large for everyone to be able to groom everyone else. This is a controversial hypothesis, but it is certainly plausible. The evidence suggests, however, that the need for such “remote grooming” would arise when a group exceeds about 80 individuals, whereas human language really got going when group sizes had risen to around 140. His latest idea is that the gap was bridged by music, which may thus be seen as a precursor to language.

The costliness of music—and of the dancing associated with it—is not in doubt, so the idea has some merit. Moreover, the idea that language evolved from wordless singing is an old one. And, crucially, both singing and dancing tend to be group activities. That does not preclude their being sexual. Indeed, showing off to the opposite sex in groups is a strategy used by many animals (it is known as lekking). But it may also have the function of using up real physiological resources in a demonstration of group solidarity.

By side-stepping the genocidal explanations that underlie the classical theory of group selection, Dr Dunbar thinks he has come up with an explanation that accounts for music’s socially binding qualities without stretching the limits of evolutionary theory. Whether it will pass the mathematical scrutiny which showed that classical group selection needs genocide remains to be seen. But if music is functional, it may be that sexual selection and social selection have actually given each other a helping hand.

The third hypothesis, though, is that music is not functional, and also that Dr Dunbar has got things backwards. Music did not lead to language, language led to music in what has turned out to be a glorious accident—what Stephen Jay Gould called a spandrel, by analogy with the functionless spaces between the arches of cathedrals that artists then fill with paintings. This is what Steven Pinker, a language theorist at Harvard, thinks. He once described music as auditory cheesecake and suggested that if it vanished from the species little else would change.

Dr Pinker’s point is that, like real cheesecake, music sates an appetite that nature cannot. Human appetites for food evolved at a time when the sugar and fat which are the main ingredients of cheesecake were scarce. In the past, no one would ever have found enough of either of these energy-rich foods to become obese, so a strong desire to eat them evolved, together with little limit beyond a full stomach to stop people eating too much. So it is with music. A brain devoted to turning sound into meaning is tickled by an oversupply of tone, melody and rhythm. Singing is auditory masturbation to satisfy this craving. Playing musical instruments is auditory pornography. Both sate an appetite that is there beyond its strict biological need.

Of course, it is a little more complicated than that. People do not have to be taught to like cheesecake or sexy pictures (which, in a telling use of the language, are sometimes also referred to as “cheesecake”). They do, however, have to be taught music in a way that they do not have to be taught language.

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Words and music
Aniruddh Patel, of the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, compares music to writing, another widespread cultural phenomenon connected with language. True language—the spoken languages used by most people and the gestural languages used by the deaf—does not have to be taught in special classes. The whole of a baby’s world is its classroom. It is true that parents make a special effort to talk to their children, but this is as instinctive as a young child’s ability (lost in his early teens) to absorb the stuff and work out its rules without ever being told them explicitly.

Learning to write, by contrast, is a long-winded struggle that many fail to master even if given the opportunity. Dyslexia, in other words, is common. Moreover, reading and writing must actively be taught, usually by specialists, and evidence for a youthful critical period when this is easier than otherwise is lacking. Both, however, transform an individual’s perception of the world, and for this reason Dr Patel refers to them as “transformative technologies”.

In difficulty of learning, music lies somewhere in between speaking and writing. Most people have some musical ability, but it varies far more than their ability to speak. Dr Patel sees this as evidence to support his idea that music is not an adaptation in the way that language is, but is, instead, a transformative technology. However, that observation also supports the idea that sexual selection is involved, since the whole point is that not everyone will be equally able to perform, or even to learn how to do so.

Do they know it’s Christmas?
What all of these hypotheses have in common is the ability of music to manipulate the emotions, and this is the most mysterious part of all. That some sounds lead to sadness and others to joy is the nub of all three hypotheses. The singing lover is not merely demonstrating his prowess; he also seeks to change his beloved’s emotions. Partly, that is done by the song’s words, but pure melody can also tug at the heart-strings. The chords of martial music stir different sentiments. A recital of the Monteverdi Vespers or a Vivaldi concerto in St Mark’s cathedral in Venice, the building that inspired Gould to think of the non-role of spandrels, generates emotion pure and simple, disconnected from human striving.

This is an area that is only beginning to be investigated. Among the pioneers are Patrik Juslin, of Uppsala University, and Daniel Vastfjall, of Gothenburg University, both in Sweden. They believe they have identified six ways that music affects emotion, from triggering reflexes in the brain stem to triggering visual images in the cerebral cortex.

Such a multiplicity of effects suggests music may be an emergent property of the brain, cobbled together from bits of pre-existing machinery and then, as it were, fine-tuned. So, ironically, everyone may be right—or, at least partly right. Dr Pinker may be right that music was originally an accident and Dr Patel may be right that it transforms people’s perceptions of the world without necessarily being a proper biological phenomenon. But Dr Miller and Dr Dunbar may be right that even if it originally was an accident, it has subsequently been exploited by evolution and made functional.

Part of that accident may be the fact that many natural sounds evoke emotion for perfectly good reasons (fear at the howl of a wolf, pleasure at the sound of gently running water, irritation and mother-love at the crying of a child). Sexually selected features commonly rely on such pre-existing perceptual biases. It is probably no coincidence, for instance, that peacocks’ tails have eyespots; animal brains are good at recognising eyes because eyes are found only on other animals. It is pure speculation, but music may be built on emotions originally evolved to respond to important natural sounds, but which have blossomed a hundred-fold.

The truth, of course, is that nobody yet knows why people respond to music. But, when the carol singers come calling, whether the emotion they induce is joy or pain, you may rest assured that science is trying to work out why.

in Economist

Shapes – Nature’s patterns

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WHY do honeycombs have hexagonal cells? Why are the florets in a sunflower arranged in a double spiral? In medieval times, these questions would have been met with a simple answer. God established the heavens, setting “a compass on the face of the deep”, leaving evidence of His presence in all creation. Most scientists today would rather invoke Charles Darwin to explain these patterns as products of evolution. They emerged from myriad possible shapes through natural selection. In other words, they are particularly suited to the task at hand.

Philip Ball, a British science writer, sets out to document the current understanding of what caused nature’s multifarious shapes. Is it just evolution or are there physical and chemical forces at work? One of Mr Ball’s heroes is Sir D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, a Scottish biologist and polymath, who in 1917 wrote “On Growth and Form”. This mammoth and erudite tome, the first formal attempt to analyse patterns and shapes in nature, was described by a colleague, Sir Peter Medawar, as “the finest work of literature in all the annals of science that have been recorded in the English tongue.” Yet it was a difficult task, and Thompson never quite achieved the results he hoped for.

Take the beehive, and its hexagonal honeycomb. Why does a hive not have triangular or square cells instead? In the 18th century a French scientist, René de Réaumur, worked out that the hexagonal structure ensures that bees fill the volume efficiently yet limit the total wall area of the cells. Put slightly differently, hexagonal cells allow bees to focus on producing honey and expend the least amount of energy making wax. Darwin used the beehive as an example of evolution, saying it “was absolutely perfect in economising labour and wax”.

Thompson argued for a simpler physical explanation, saying that natural selection need not enter the picture at all. If one treated each individual cell as a bubble of wax created by a bee, and every bee was trying to create as large a cell as possible, the physics of surface tension would ensure that all the bubbles took on a hexagonal shape within the hive.

Mr Ball finds the real answer to be more complex than either explanation. To Darwin’s supporters, Mr Ball points out that decoding the honeybee genome still does not explain how the bee makes the honeycomb. On the other hand, Thompson’s explanation of surface tension ignores the bees, which painstakingly build the honeycomb, and possess capabilities that are not yet fully understood. For example, the honeycomb is somehow aligned to the earth’s magnetic field, though no one quite knows why. From the curl of a ram’s horn to patterns of spider webs and the development of an embryo, Mr Ball examines the possible causes of the shapes and forms we observe. His book contains a lot of fascinating detail about the different physical, chemical and evolutionary processes at work. In the end, he concludes, nature is an opportunist.

in The Economist

Physics and philosophy – I’m not looking, honest!

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The good news is reality exists. The bad is it’s even stranger than people thought

“HOW wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress.” So said Niels Bohr, one of the founders of quantum mechanics. Since its birth in the 1920s, physicists and philosophers have grappled with the bizarre consequences that his theory has for reality, including the fundamental truth that it is impossible to know everything about the world and, in fact, whether it really exists at all when it is not being observed. Now two groups of physicists, working independently, have demonstrated that nature is indeed real when unobserved. When no one is peeking, however, it acts in a really odd way.

In the 1990s a physicist called Lucien Hardy proposed a thought experiment that makes nonsense of the famous interaction between matter and antimatter—that when a particle meets its antiparticle, the pair always annihilate one another in a burst of energy. Dr Hardy’s scheme left open the possibility that in some cases when their interaction is not observed a particle and an antiparticle could interact with one another and survive. Of course, since the interaction has to remain unseen, no one should ever notice this happening, which is why the result is known as Hardy’s paradox.

Kazuhiro Yokota of Osaka University in Japan and his colleagues demonstrated that Hardy’s paradox is, in fact, correct. They report their work in the New Journal of Physics. The experiment represents independent confirmation of a similar demonstration by Jeff Lundeen and Aephraim Steinberg of the University of Toronto, which was published seven weeks ago in Physical Review Letters.

The two teams used the same technique in their experiments. They managed to do what had previously been thought impossible: they probed reality without disturbing it. Not disturbing it is the quantum-mechanical equivalent of not really looking. So they were able to show that the universe does indeed exist when it is not being observed.

The reality in question—admittedly rather a small part of the universe—was the polarisation of pairs of photons, the particles of which light is made. The state of one of these photons was inextricably linked with that of the other through a process known as quantum entanglement.

The polarised photons were able to take the place of the particle and the antiparticle in Dr Hardy’s thought experiment because they obey the same quantum-mechanical rules. Dr Yokota (and also Drs Lundeen and Steinberg) managed to observe them without looking, as it were, by not gathering enough information from any one interaction to draw a conclusion, and then pooling these partial results so that the total became meaningful.

What the several researchers found was that there were more photons in some places than there should have been and fewer in others. The stunning result, though, was that in some places the number of photons was actually less than zero. Fewer than zero particles being present usually means that you have antiparticles instead. But there is no such thing as an antiphoton (photons are their own antiparticles, and are pure energy in any case), so that cannot apply here.

The only mathematically consistent explanation known for this result is therefore Hardy’s. The weird things he predicted are real and they can, indeed, only be seen by people who are not looking. Dr Yokota and his colleagues went so far as to call their results “preposterous”. Niels Bohr, no doubt, would have been delighted.

But not yet, Lord – Religion, medicine and death

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Religious people seem curiously reluctant to meet their maker

HOW do a person’s religious beliefs influence his attitude to terminal illness? The answer is surprising. You might expect the religious to accept death as God’s will and, while not hurrying towards it, not to seek to prolong their lives using heroic and often traumatic medical procedures. Atheists, by contrast, have nothing to look forward to after death, so they might be expected to cling to life.

In fact, it is the other way round—at least according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association by Andrea Phelps and her colleagues at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. Religious people seem to use their faith to cope with the pain and degradation that “aggressive” medical treatment entails, even though such treatment rarely makes much odds.

Dr Phelps and her team followed the last months of 345 cancer patients. The participants were not asked directly how religious they were but, rather, about how they used any religious belief they had to cope with difficult situations by, for example, “seeking God’s love and care”. The score from this questionnaire was compared with their requests for such things as the use of mechanical ventilation to keep them alive and resuscitation to bring them back from the dead.

The correlation was strong. More than 11% of those with the highest scores underwent mechanical ventilation; less than 4% of those with the lowest did so. For resuscitation the figures were 7% and 2%.

Explaining the unpleasantness and futility of the procedures does not seem to make much difference, either. Holly Prigerson, one of Dr Phelps’s co-authors, was involved in another study at Dana-Farber which was published earlier this month in the Archives of Internal Medicine. This showed that when doctors had frank conversations about the end of life with terminally ill cancer patients, the patients typically chose not to request very intensive medical interventions.

According to Dr Prigerson, though, such end-of-life chats had little impact on “religious copers”, most of whom still wanted doctors to make every effort to keep them alive. Saint Augustine of Hippo, one of Christianity’s most revered figures, famously asked God to help him achieve “chastity and continence, but not yet”. When it comes to meeting their maker, many religious people seem to have a similar attitude.

in The Economist