‘I believe that energy can’t be destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another. There’s more to life than we can conceive of.’ The quote is from the singer and songwriter, Corinne Bailey Rae’s answer to the question: do you believe in an afterlife? [see Inventory in the FT Magazine, October 26/27 2019]. However, the first part of her answer is the first law of thermodynamics while the second part resonates with Erwin Schrödinger’s view on life and consciousness [see ‘Digital hive mind‘ on November 30th, 2016]. The garden writer and broadcaster, Monty Don gave a similar answer to the same question: ‘Absolutely. I believe that the energy lives on and is connected to place. I do have this idea of re-joining all of my past dogs and family on a summer’s day, like a Stanley Spencer painting.’ [see Inventory in the FT Magazine, January 18/19 2020]. The boundary between energy and mass is blurry because matter is constructed from atoms and atoms from sub-atomic particles, such as electrons that can behave as particles or waves of energy [see ‘More uncertainty about matter and energy‘ on August 3rd 2016]. Hence, the concept that after death our body reverts to a cloud of energy as the complex molecules of our anatomy are broken down into elemental particles is completely consistent with modern physics. However, I suspect Rae and Don were going further and suggesting that our consciousness lives on in some form. Perhaps through some kind of unified mind that Schrödinger thought might exist as a consequence of our individual minds networking together to create emergent behaviour. Schrödinger found it utterly impossible to form an idea about how this might happen and it seems unlikely that an individual mind could ever do so; however, perhaps the more percipient amongst us occasionally gets a hint of the existence of something beyond our individual consciousness.
I have been involved in the creation of a European pre-standard for the validation of computational models used to predict the structural performance of engineering systems [see ‘Setting Standards‘ on January 24th, 2014]; so, an example of a two thousand year old standard in the National Palace Museum in Taipei particularly attracted my interest during a recent visit to Taiwan. A Jia-liang is a standard measure from the Xin Dynasty dated to between 9 and 24 CE. It is an early form of standard weights and measure issued by the Chinese emperor. The main cylinder contains a volume known as a ‘hu’; however, if you flip it over there is a small cylinder that contains a ‘dou’ which is one tenth of a ‘hu’. The object that looks like a handle on the right in the photograph is third cylinder that holds a ‘sheng’ which is one tenth of a ‘dou’ or one hundredth of a ‘hu’; and the handle on the left contains a ‘ge’ when it is as shown in the photograph and a ‘yue’ when the other way up. A ‘ge’ is tenth of ‘sheng’ and a ‘yeu’ is a twentieth. The Jia-liang was made of bronze with all of the information engraved on it and was used to measure grain across the Xin empire.
I had been queueing slowly up the steps to board a plane thinking about nothing in particular when, as I stepped into the plane, one of cabin staff said to me ‘Are you getting ready for winter?’ I looked at her somewhat perplexed because it was only September, and she pointed to the book that I was holding ready to read on the flight home. It was ‘Winter’ by Ali Smith. It is a novel with much to say on many issues.
One of the central characters in the novel, Art writes a blog and someone challenges him to write about a real thing, something that he remembers happening and not a blog thing. He describes a real childhood memory and when it is suggested that he should write about it, his response is he could never put something like that on-line because ‘it’s way to real’. I have some empathy with Art, because it can be difficult writing about your thoughts and memories for anyone to read. However, I have noticed that the readership of the blog goes up when I do write about such things [see for example ‘Thinking more clearly by writing weekly‘ on May 2nd, 2018 or ‘Depressed by exams‘ on January 31st, 2018]. So, if people are interested perhaps I should do it more often.
Another passage that resonated with me was about age. The narrator is her sixties, which I will be soon, and comments that ‘You never stop being yourself on the inside whatever age people think you are by looking at you from the outside.’ I think that this is true but perhaps difficult to reconcile with consciousness being an accumulation of sensory experiences [see ‘Is there a real ‘you’ or ‘I’‘ on March 6th, 2019]
I wrote some weeks ago about art challenging the way we think and artists being spokespeople for society [see ‘Spokesperson for society’ on August 28th, 2019] and also about ‘Taking a sketch instead of snapping a photo’ [on September 3rd, 2019]. My photo of the sketch taken by Rennie Mackintosh was snapped at an exhibition in Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool; and, on the wall of the gallery was a quote from Rennie Mackintosh: ‘All artists know that pleasure derivable from their work is their life’s pleasure – the very spirit and soul of their existence’. I feel the same way about my work as an engineer and I think that many of my colleagues would agree with me. In my welcome talk to new engineering undergraduate students last week, I used this quote and tried to convey the extent to which science and engineering is a part of my existence and how I hoped it would become a part of their life. I am not sure that I convinced very many of them.