Recently, I visited a local artist to choose a painting for a birthday present. He showed me a pair of small oil paintings in which I had expressed an interest via photographs he had sent me by email. I agreed to buy both of them and then we drifted into his studio where he showed me the pieces he was working on. There were many unfinished paintings and he described how difficult it was to finish some of them. He measured the time taken on some of them in months and, for a few, in years. I was struck by the similarity with scientists who indulge in slow-motion multi-tasking and switch between research projects in different fields, often leaving something unfinished to focus on something else and then returning to pursue the original research topic [‘Slow-motion multi-tasking leading to productive research‘ on September 19th, 2018]. I suspect both artists and scientists who indulge this approach are looking to achieve ‘a perfect balance of their conscious and unconscious life’ out of which Barbara Hepworth believed ideas are born and realized [see ‘Ideas from a balanced mind‘ on August 24th, 2016].
When I was younger, I often had dreams when I was asleep in which I raised my arms and flew effortlessly across the landscape. I had the opportunity to have a similar experience while awake when I was in Taiwan earlier this year. I am fairly frequent visitor to Taiwan [see ‘‘Crash’ in Taipei: an engineer’s travelogue‘ on November 19th, 2014 and ‘Citizens of the world‘ on November 27th, 2019]. I often go with colleagues from the UK who have not been before and almost without fail we visit the amazing National Palace Museum. On my last visit in January [see: ‘Ancient standards‘ on January 29th, 2020] there was an exciting blend of art and technology in an exhibit that allowed the visitor to fly through the landscape of a painting. I stood in front of a projection of the picture on a large screen and lifted my arms for a moment to allow the computer system to register my position before starting to fly into the picture, tilting left or right to turn, and lowering and raising my arms to slow down or speed up. Although there was no mask or headphones to wear, the experience was absorbing and realistic. You can watch me flying with my ‘jetpack’ in this video.
‘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.