Einstein and the Eskimos

    Adapted from The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History by Howard Bloom (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997). Reprinted by permission from the author.

    Einstein and the Eskimos

    Before the coming of the white man to the north, Eskimos believed that if they cut slabs of ice, organized them in a circle, formed a dome, and lived inside they would please the spirits. Apparently, the plan worked. The contented spirits made sure the Eskimos stayed warm even when the temperature dipped to forty below zero outside. Eventually, Western scientists showed up and tried to explain how the Eskimos had mastered an invisible force called thermodynamics. According to these presumptuous foreigners, the igloo’s tunnel-like entrance preheated outside air, the movable snow-block door let in precisely the amount of this air that could be further warmed by the seal-oil lamp inside, and the adjustable hole in the roof allowed just enough of the resulting rising currents out to create the convection that kept the whole thing going. The sturdy igloo builders pooh-poohed thermodynamic nonsense. They knew exactly what invisible powers kept their dwellings warm.[1]

    Indians worship an invisible divinity—the cow goddess. As a result, cows eat and Indians starve. We are appalled. Why don’t the hungry Indians simply carve up some of the cattle wandering nonchalantly down their streets and wolf down a burger? Anthropologist Marvin Harris has shown that if the Indians slaughtered their cows and threw them between the buns of a Big Mac, far more of them would starve. Harris explains that the Indians survive by using the cows’ dung as fuel, their traction to pull plows, and their milk to feed children. Killing the cows would make agriculture impossible, heating unheard of, and milk unavailable. The worship of the sacred cow works because it keeps alive the creatures on which the Indian economy is based.[2]

    Pictures of the invisible world can have wild inaccuracies, but every view that flourishes does so because it solves at least one major problem. Balinese religious leaders kept their gods happy by throwing a series of holy feasts that peppered all four seasons. The country’s agricultural practices were controlled by the ritual demands of this elaborate holiday calendar. But a few years ago, foreign experts persuaded Bali’s farmers to free themselves from the dictates of superstition. Following the enlightened advice, cultivators planted and harvested according to modern schedules. The result was a disaster. Crops began to rot in the fields. Mice and insects got out of hand, eating away much of the harvest that did survive. It turned out that the ornate cycle of holidays with which the Indonesian priests had pleased their gods served a secondary function. It acted as a timing mechanism, mustering the farmers to open and close the sluices of the country’s complex irrigation system, and to do their planting on precisely the right days to maximize crop production and minimize rodents and pests. In satisfying a set of arbitrary deities no one had ever seen, the priests had constructed a system more successful than any of Indonesia’s up-to-date agricultural planners had yet been able to invent.[3]

    Building pictures of the invisible world is the human way of trying to deal with the world we see. Each cosmology-making meme is a problem-solving device, allowing us to master dilemmas that a dog, a cat, or a canary has a great deal more difficulty coping with.

    Animals and human beings are both up against a world where most of what determines their fate is invisible to them at the moment. To a monkey in a clearing, food is nowhere in view. Often, neither are the males he’s competing with or the females he’s competing for. The infants he’s contending for the right to father do not, as yet, exist. The predators who could end his life are equally hidden from sight. But he has to deal with all of these to send his genes into the next generation.

    To survive, a human has to deal with an even more complex invisible world. For a man on his way to work, most of the things that affect him are completely out of sight. Wife, children, boss, competitors at the office, stores that provide his food and clothing, or a natural disaster that could end his existence are all, for the moment, visible only in his imagination. But he has to measure these factors moment by moment to survive. As he sits in a car slowed by traffic, he is aware of his job, its purpose, the paycheck that won’t arrive until Friday, the debate he and his wife may have when he gets home. And he has to make predictions. What pile of paperwork should he dig into if he wants to finish the report whose deadline will come at the end of the day? How much can he afford to spend on a new suit if he plans to take the family to Hawaii for vacation? What should he say to his spouse when he steps back into the house that night to put her in a good mood? What should he avoid saying if he wants to sidestep a battle?

    To make predictions like these, scientists construct models of the real world. For example, the nineteenth-century German Bernhard Riemann painstakingly worked out a mathematical picture of an imaginary territory. This curved landscape was warped in an odd way: it arched invisibly into a fourth dimension. Riemann used mathematical equations to feel out the features of this void like a blind man piecing together an “image” of an unfamiliar space by probing with his cane.[4] The diligent German ended up with a mathematical landscape portrait of an “n-dimensional manifold,” better known to its friends as “curved space.”

    Einstein felt he could apply this fanciful worldview to the universe in which you and I live—a cosmos with the three tangible dimensions of height, width, and depth, and one extra dimension: time. In Einstein’s view, our universe was indeed curved, forming a hypersphere that bulged outward into a dimension we cannot see.

    From Riemann’s curved world picture, the frizzy-haired physicist was able to predict a set of hitherto unobserved phenomena. When those predictions proved true, scientists adopted the Riemann model as an accurate portrait of much of the world invisible to them. That fantasy picture of an invisibly curved cosmos has been enabling them to make predictions ever since.[5]

    Even animals need predictive powers. To see into the future, simple creatures like the frog have a prewired model of the world. The frog is built with a set of neural trip lines between his eye, the visual processors in his brain, and his tongue. These nerve cells are constructed to follow a set of simple instructions—erratically moving object: flick tongue; motionless object: don’t bother. It works, and the frog ends up with food. His nerves embody a model of a planet in which objects flitting by are usually delicious.

    But the frog’s prewired picture of the world will not change with circumstances. Offer a starving frog an immobilized fly, and he simply will not touch it. His built-in portrait of the universe tells him that only objects that dart around are fit for dinner. If a captive frog goes on long enough ignoring the torpid bits of nourishment offered him, the flaws in his unbending world model could kill him.[6]

    More complex animals, on the other hand, build parts of their models on experience. Their pictures of the invisible world are changeable. A dog is capable of quickly developing a model of things it’s never seen before. Lock the hound in a room it’s never visited, and the beast will immediately check out all the details, building up an image of the place and searching for an exit it’s never even glimpsed. Thanks to an ability to imagine walls and doorways it has never seen, the curious canine is able to predict the existence of an escape route.[7]

    Albert Einstein used the mathematical model provided by Bernhard Riemann to predict everything from the energy in the atom to the motion of light; but instead of employing math to construct models, our minds most often use metaphors.[8] Our brains are picture-making machines. Every culture has a world view, not an algebraic set of cosmic calculations. Uneducated medieval Christians pictured the earth as a flat disk that ended somewhere over the watery horizon. They predicted that small boats that sailed too far from the Atlantic shore would never be seen again. Renaissance intellectuals, on the other hand, revived the old Greek image of the terrestrial surface as a sphere. To Columbus, this meant that he might sail off into the western sunset and emerge with the sunrise on the earth’s eastern side. Columbus’s optimism was based on a portrait of an underbelly of the planet that Europeans had never beheld, an image of the invisible.[9]

    Genes are the form of replicator that dominated the evolutionary marathon for nearly three billion years. But in the latest blink of geological time these strands of nucleotides have been outpaced by the matterless organizers called memes. Among the most potent memes are visions of things unseen. Like genes, memes do not operate in solo, but interlock in the mosaics that form Weltanshauungs, worldviews.

    A culture’s view of its world is generally a vast grid of metaphors starting with the creation of the universe and designed to answer every mystery in life. That diagram of the cosmos is a tool with which we pry open our environment, a tool that creates strange by-products. It offers an illusion of control—the illusion that turns on our immune system and our minds. The worldview also confers power on those who claim to be its guardians—sorcerers, doctors, scientists, and priests. It helps the powerful pull a social organism together. On occasion, as in the case of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, it even impels that social creature’s members to lash out and kill.

    Yet a culture’s picture of the invisible universe, its unifying cluster of memes, accomplishes something more. Though it may be riddled with bizarre errors and ludicrous imagery, a vision of the unseeable produces some small fragment of real mastery. Pictures of the invisible world helped Columbus cross the ocean, the Eskimo tame his winters, and the citizen of Bali regulate his irrigation. Someday they may even help us moderns conquer the medical problems that doctors still insist do not exist.

    Excerpted from The Lucifer Principle by Howard Bloom. Copyright © Howard Bloom, 1997. All rights reserved.


    [1] Barash, Whisperings Within, 43.

    [2] Marvin Harris, “India’s Sacred Cow,” in Conformity and Conflict: Readings in Cultural Anthropology, ed. James P. Spradley and David W. McCurdy (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1986), 208–19; Marvin Harris, Cannibals and Kings: The Origins of Cultures (New York: Vintage Books, 1977), 211–32; and M. Harris, Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches, 6–27. Actually, the Arab scholar Abu Raihan Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Biruni, who traveled extensively in India during the eleventh century, anticipated Harris’s economic explanation of cow worship by over nine hundred years. See Abu Raihan Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Biruni, Albiruni’s India, trans. Edward Sachau and ed. Ainslie T. Embree (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1971), 152. For al-Biruni’s background, see Ainslie Thomas Embree, ed., Encyclopedia of Asian History (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1988), 1:164.

    [3] The Three Worlds of Bali, written by and based on the research of J. Stephen Lansing, prod, and dir. Ira R. Abrams, Odyssey television series, co-prod. Public Broadcasting Associates and the University of Southern California (1981); Reader, Man on Earth, 69–72; and Jane E. Stevens, “Growing Rice the Old-Fashioned Way, with Computer Assist,” Technology Review, January 1994, 16–18.

    [4] Leibnitz felt that the process of working out the structure of possible worlds was the very essence of mathematics (Heinz Pagels, The Dreams of Reason: The Computer and the Rise of the Sciences of Complexity [New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988], 302). For an interesting sense of what a curved four-dimensional world is like, see Edwin A. Abbott’s nineteenth-century classic Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1983).

    [5] Albert Einstein, The Meaning of Relativity, 5th ed. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1955), 64, 103–104; Max Jammer, The History of Theories of Space in Physics (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1954), 143, 149; G. J. Whitrow, Einstein: The Man and His Achievement (New York: Dover Publications, 1973); “Relativity,” in McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science and Technology, 11:492–93; “Riemannian Geometry,” McGraw Hill Encyclopedia of Science and Technology, 11:671; “Bernhard Riemann,” New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 10:62; and Michael Guillen, Bridges to Infinity: The Human Side of Mathematics (Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1 983), 84–87, 110–11.

    [6] Robert Jastrow, The Enchanted Loom: Mind in the Universe (New York: Simon and Schuster, Touchstone Book, 1983), 67–70. Jastrow is founder of NASA’s Goddard Institute.

    [7] For more on animals’ internal models of the world, see British Royal Society member Janos Szentagothai’s “The Brain-Mind Relation: A Pseudoproblem?” in Mindwaves, ed. Colin Blakemore and Susan Greenfield (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1959), 324.

    [8] For a different, but extraordinary, outline of the relationship between metaphor, mind, science, and mathematics, see Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1976), 50–54. Also see Peter Hacker, “Languages, Minds and Brains,” in Blakemore and Greenfield, Mindwaves, 485–88.

    [9] Boorstin, Discoverers, 226.

    Howard Bloom has been called “next in a lineage of seminal thinkers that includes Newton, Darwin, Einstein, [and] Freud” by Britain’s Channel4 TV, “the next Stephen Hawking” by Gear Magazine, and “The Buckminster Fuller and Arthur C. Clarke of the new millennium” by Buckminster Fuller’s archivist. Bloom is the author of The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition Into the Forces of History (“mesmerizing” – The Washington Post), Global Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century (“reassuring and sobering” – The New Yorker), The Genius of the Beast: A Radical Re-Vision of Capitalism (“Impressive, stimulating, and tremendously enjoyable.” James Fallows, National Correspondent, The Atlantic), The God Problem: How A Godless Cosmos Creates (“Bloom’s argument will rock your world.” Barbara Ehrenreich), How I Accidentally Started the Sixties (“a monumental, epic, glorious literary achievement.” Timothy Leary), and The Muhammad Code: How a Desert Prophet Gave You ISIS, al Qaeda, and Boko Haram – or How Muhammad Invented Jihad (“a terrifying book… the best book I’ve read on Islam,” David Swindle, PJ Media).

    Bloom explains that his field is “mass behaviour, from the mass behaviour of quarks to the mass behaviour of human beings.” That specialisation gives him a wide scope. His scientific work has been published in: arxiv.org, the leading pre-print site in advanced theoretical physics and mathematics; PhysicaPlus, another physics journal; Across Species Comparisons and Psychopathology; New Ideas in Psychology; The Journal of Space Philosophy; and in the book series: Research in Biopolitics. In 2005, Bloom lectured an international conference of quantum physicists in Moscow – Quantum Informatics 2006 – on why everything they know about Schrodinger’s Equation is wrong, and the concepts Bloom introduced were later used in a book proposing a new approach to quantum physics, Constructive Physics, by Moscow University’s Yuri Ozhigov.

    Bloom’s second book Global Brain was the subject of an Office of the Secretary of Defense symposium in 2010, with participants from the State Department, the Energy Department, DARPA, IBM, and MIT. Bloom is founder and head of the Space Development Steering Committee, a group that includes astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Edgar Mitchell (the sixth man on the moon), and members from the National Science Foundation and NASA. He has debated one-on-one with senior officials from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Gaza’s Hamas on Iran’s global Arab-language Alalam TV News Network. He has also dissected headline issues on Saudi Arabia’s KSA2-TV and on Iran’s global English language Press-TV. And he has probed the untold story of the Syrian Civil War with Nancy Kissinger.

    In addition, Bloom’s work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Wired, Knight-Ridder Financial News Service, the Village Voice, and Cosmopolitan Magazine. He has appeared 199 times for up to five hours on 500 radio stations on the highest-rated overnight talk radio station in North America, Clear Channel’s Coast to Coast AM, discussing everything from the biome in the gut and the evolution of the stars to the mechanism of the Great Recession of 2008 and North Korea’s rocket programme.

    Bloom has his own YouTube series, Howard the Humongous, which gets up to 790,000 views per installment. His website, howardbloom.net, has had between four and five million hits. Follow him on Twitter at @HowardxBloom.

    The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History
    By Howard Bloom
    Atlantic Monthly Press (March 13, 1997)
    ISBN-10: 0871136643
    ISBN-13: 978-0871136640
    $11.34

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