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“This potential possibility need only play a role as a counterfactual, according to quantum theory, for it to have an actual effect!”*…

Contemplate counterfactuals: things that have not happened — but could happen — a neglected area of scientific theory…

If you could soar high in the sky, as red kites often do in search of prey, and look down at the domain of all things known and yet to be known, you would see something very curious: a vast class of things that science has so far almost entirely neglected. These things are central to our understanding of physical reality, both at the everyday level and at the level of the most fundamental phenomena in physics — yet they have traditionally been regarded as impossible to incorporate into fundamental scientific explana­tions. They are facts not about what is — the ‘actual’ — but about what could or could not be. In order to distinguish them from the ac­tual, they are called counterfactuals.

Suppose that some future space mission visited a remote planet in another solar system, and that they left a stainless-steel box there, containing among other things the critical edition of, say, William Blake’s poems. That the poetry book is subsequently sit­ting somewhere on that planet is a factual property of it. That the words in it could be read is a counterfactual property, which is true regardless of whether those words will ever be read by anyone. The box may be never found; and yet that those words could be read would still be true — and laden with significance. It would signify, for instance, that a civilization visited the planet, and much about its degree of sophistication.

To further grasp the importance of counterfactual properties, and their difference from actual properties, imagine a computer programmed to produce on its display a string of zeroes. That is a factual property of the computer, to do with its actual state — with what is. The fact that it could be reprogrammed to output other strings is a counterfactual property of the computer. The computer may never be so programmed; but the fact that it could is an essential fact about it, without which it would not qualify as a computer.

The counterfactuals that matter to science and physics, and that have so far been neglected, are facts about what could or could not be made to happen to physical systems; about what is possible or impossible. They are fundamental because they express essential features of the laws of physics — the rules that govern every system in the universe. For instance, a counterfactual property imposed by the laws of physics is that it is impossible to build a perpetual motion machine. A perpetual motion machine is not simply an object that moves forever once set into motion: it must also gener­ate some useful sort of motion. If this device could exist, it would produce energy out of no energy. It could be harnessed to make your car run forever without using fuel of any sort. Any sequence of transformations turning something without energy into some thing with energy, without depleting any energy supply, is impos­sible in our universe: it could not be made to happen, because of a fundamental law that physicists call the principle of conservation of energy.

Another significant counterfactual property of physical sys­tems, central to thermodynamics, is that a steam engine is possible. A steam engine is a device that transforms energy of one sort into energy of a different sort, and it can perform useful tasks, such as moving a piston, without ever violating that principle of conserva­tion of energy. Actual steam engines (those that have been built so far) are factual properties of our universe. The possibility of build­ing a steam engine, which existed long before the first one was actually built, is a counterfactual.

So the fundamental types of counterfactuals that occur in physics are of two kinds: one is the impossibility of performing a transformation (e.g., building a perpetual motion machine); the other is the possibility of performing a transformation (e.g., building a steam engine). Both are cardinal properties of the laws of phys­ics; and, among other things, they have crucial implications for our endeavours: no matter how hard we try, or how ingeniously we think, we cannot bring about transformations that the laws of physics declare to be impossible — for example, creating a per­petual motion machine. However, by thinking hard enough, we can come up with more and better ways of performing a pos­sible transformation — for instance, that of constructing a steam engine — which can then improve over time.

In the prevailing scientific worldview, counterfactual proper­ties of physical systems are unfairly regarded as second-class citi­zens, or even excluded altogether. Why? It is because of a deep misconception, which, paradoxically, originated within my own field, theoretical physics. The misconception is that once you have specified everything that exists in the physical world and what happens to it — all the actual stuff — then you have explained every­thing that can be explained. Does that sound indisputable? It may well. For it is easy to get drawn into this way of thinking with­out ever realising that one has swallowed a number of substantive assumptions that are unwarranted. For you can’t explain what a computer is solely by specifying the computation it is actually per­forming at a given time; you need to explain what the possible com­putations it could perform are, if it were programmed in possible ways. More generally, you can’t explain the presence of a lifeboat aboard a pirate ship only in terms of an actual shipwreck. Everyone knows that the lifeboat is there because of a shipwreck that could happen (a counterfactual explanation). And that would still be the reason even if the ship never did sink!

Despite regarding counterfactuals as not fundamental, science has been making rapid, relentless progress, for example, by devel­oping new powerful theories of fundamental physics, such as quantum theory and Einstein’s general relativity; and novel expla­nations in biology — with genetics and molecular biology — and in neuroscience. But in certain areas, it is no longer the case. The assumption that all fundamental explanations in science must be expressed only in terms of what happens, with little or no refer­ence to counterfactuals, is now getting in the way of progress. For counterfactuals are essential to a number of things that are cur­rently explained only vaguely in science, or not explained at all. Counterfactuals are central to an exact, unified theory of heat, work, and information (both classical and quantum); to explain mat­ters such as the appearance of design in living things; and to a sci­entific explanation of knowledge…

An excerpt from Chiara Marletto‘s The Science of Can and Can’t: A Physicist’s Journey Through the Land of Counterfactuals, via the invaluable @delanceyplace.

[Image above: source]

* Roger Penrose, Shadows of the Mind: A Search for the Missing Science of Consciousness


As we ponder the plausible, we might send superlatively speculative birthday greetings to an accomplished counterfactualist, H.G. Wells; he was born on this date in 1866.  A prolific writer of novels, history, political and social commentary, textbooks, and rules for war games, Wells is best remembered (with Jules Verne and Hugo Gernsback) as “the father of science fiction” for his “scientific romances”– The War of the WorldsThe Time MachineThe Invisible Man, The Island of Doctor Moreau, et al.


“I cannot well repeat how there I entered”*…

Domenico di Michelino, La Divina Commedia di Dante, 1465 — Source

A collection– and consideration– of the illustrations inspired by Dante’s The Divine Comedy…

A man wakes deep in the woods, halfway through life. Far from home, unpermitted to return, his heart pierced by grief. He has strayed from the path. It’s a dark night of the soul, his crisis so great that death becomes a tempting end. And then, as wild beasts advance upon this easy prey, his prayers are answered. A guide appears, promising to show him the way toward paradise…

[This month] marks the seventh centenary of Dante Alighieri’s death, the Florentine poet who wrote The Divine Comedy, arguably our most ambitious Western epic. Eschewing Latin, the medieval currency of literature and scholarship, Dante wrote in his vernacular tongue, establishing the foundations for a standardized Italian language, and, by doing so, may have laid cultural groundwork for the unification of Italy.

The poet’s impact on literature cannot be overstated. “Dante’s influence was massive”, writes Erich Auerbach, “he singlehandedly established the expressive possibilities and the landscape of all poetry to come, and he did so virtually out of thin air”. And just as the classical Virgil served as Dante’s guide through the Inferno, Dante became a kind of Virgil for later writers. Chaucer cribbed his rhythm and images, while Milton’s Paradise Lost may have been actually lost, were it not for Dante as a shepherd. The Divina Commedia is a touchstone for works as diverse as fifteenth-century Castilian and Catalan verse; Gogol’s Dead Souls (1842); and Mary Shelley’s Italian Rambles (1844), which finds the poet at every turn:

There is scarcely a spot in Tuscany, and those parts of the North of Italy, which he visited, that Dante has not described in poetry that brings the very spot before your eyes, adorned with graces missed by the prosaic eye, and which are exact and in perfect harmony with the scene.

If Dante’s poetry summons landscapes before its reader’s eyes, artists have tried, for the last seven hundred years, to achieve another kind of evocation: rendering the Commedia in precise images, evocative patterns, and dazzling color. By Jean-Pierre Barricelli’s estimate, a complete catalogue of Commedia-inspired artworks would exceed 1,100 names. The earliest dated image comes from Florence in 1337, beginning the tradition soon after the poet’s death in 1321. Before long, there were scores of other illustrations…

A thoughtful consideration and a glorious collection: “700 Years of Dante’s Divine Comedy in Art,” from @PublicDomainRev.

* Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy


As we visualize, we might send well-worded birthday greetings to Samuel Johnson; he was born on this date in 1709.  A poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor, and lexicographer, Johnson’s best-known work was surely  A Dictionary of the English Language, which he published in 1755, after nine years work– and which served as the standard for 150 years (until the completion of the Oxford English Dictionary).  But Dr. Johnson, as he was known, is probably best remembered as the subject of what Walter Jackson Bate noted is “the most famous single work of biographical art in the whole of literature”: James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson.  A famous aphorist, Johnson was the very opposite of a man he described to Boswell in 1784: “He is not only dull himself, but the cause of dullness in others.”

Apropos Dante, Johnson observed “if what happens does not make us richer, we must welcome it if it makes us wiser.”

Joshua Reynolds’ portrait of Dr. Johnson


“Culture is the name for what people are interested in”*…

Henry Nelson O’Neil; “The Last Hours of Mozart”

… but “culture” (that’s to say, “high culture”) has also been a form of authority, a kind of superego for society. These days, Adam Kirsh argues, not so much…

From the 1920s to the 1950s, from jazz and blues to rock and roll, tweaking the canon was part of the appeal of pop music—and a favorite device of lyricists. Ella Fitzgerald had a signature hit with Sam Coslow’s “(If You Can’t Sing It) You’ll Have to Swing It (Mr. Paganini).” Betty Comden and Adolph Green wrote the lyrics to “It’s a Simple Little System,” from the musical Bells Are Ringing, in which a bookie uses composers’ names as code to refer to racetracks: “Beethoven is Belmont Park/ Tchaikovsky is Churchill Downs.” Chuck Berry hit the same targets in “Roll Over Beethoven”: “My heart’s beating rhythm/ And my soul keeps singing the blues/ Roll over Beethoven/ Tell Tchaikovsky the news.”

In recent decades, however, this type of indirect homage to the authority of classical music has completely disappeared from popular music. The last example may be “Rock Me, Amadeus,” a German pop hit from 1985 that was inspired less by Mozart himself than by the 1984 movie Amadeus, in which the composer is portrayed as, in the song’s words, “ein Punker” and “ein Rockidol.” Today’s pop lyricists don’t poke fun at Beethoven and Tchaikovsky because young listeners no longer recognize those names as possessing any cultural authority or prestige, if they recognize them at all. It would make as much sense to write a pop song called “Roll Over Palestrina” or “Rock Me, Hildegard von Bingen,” since all composers are equally unfamiliar to a mass audience.

Like the disappearance of a certain species of frog or insect, this is a small change that signals a profound transformation of the climate—in this case, the cultural climate…

And while that change has its costs, Kirsch explains, it also has its benefits : “Culture as counterculture.”

Walter Lippmann


As we contemplate canons, we might recall that on this date in 2008 the #1 song in the U.S. was “Whatever You Like” by T.I. Jared W. Dillon of Sputnikmusic called the song a “more sophisticated take” on Lil Wayne‘s “Lollipop.”


Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 6, 2021 at 1:00 am

“How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”*…

Henriette Browne, A Girl Writing; The Pet Goldfinch, ca. 1874

Montaigne would be amused…

The first quarter of the twenty-first century has been an uneasy time of rupture and anxiety, filled with historic challenges and opportunities. In that close to twenty-five-year span, the United States witnessed the ominous opening shot of September 11, followed by the seemingly unending Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the effort to control HIV/AIDS, the 2008 recession, the election of the first African American president, the legalization of same-sex marriage, the contentious reign of Donald Trump, the stepped-up restriction of immigrants, the #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, and the coronavirus pandemic, just to name a few major events. Intriguingly, the essay has blossomed during this time, in what many would deem an exceptionally good period for literary nonfiction—if not a golden one, then at least a silver: I think we can agree that there has been a remarkable outpouring of new and older voices responding to this perplexing moment in a form uniquely amenable to the processing of uncertainty.

When the century began, essays were considered box office poison; editors would sometimes disguise collections of the stuff by packaging them as theme-driven memoirs. All that has changed: a generation of younger readers has embraced the essay form and made their favorite authors into best sellers. We could speculate on the reasons for this growing popularity—the hunger for humane, authentic voices trying to get at least a partial grip on the truth in the face of so much political mendacity and information overload; the convenient, bite-size nature of essays that require no excessive time commitment; the rise of identity politics and its promotion of eloquent spokespersons. Rather than trying to figure out why it’s happening, what’s important is to chart the high points of this resurgence, and to account for the range of styles, subgenres, experimental approaches, and moral positions that characterize the contemporary American essay…

Read “The Silver Age of Essays,” an excerpt from Phillip Lopate‘s introduction to a new collection, The Contemporary American Essay; via @parisreview.

* E. M. Forster


As we praise perceptive prose, we might recall that it was on this date in 1854 that Ticknor & Fields published transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau’s reflection on simple living in natural surroundings, Walden; or, Life in the Woods... essentially a long essay.



Written by (Roughly) Daily

August 9, 2021 at 1:00 am

“English is flexible: you can jam it into a Cuisinart for an hour, remove it, and meaning will still emerge”*…

Plus ça change. The opening pages of The Lytille Childrenes Lytil Boke, an instructional book of table manners dating from around 1480 and written in Middle English. Amongst other directives, children are told Bulle not as a bene were in thi throote (Don’t burp as if you had a bean in your throat) and Pyke notte thyne errys nothyr thy nostrellys’(Don’t pick your ears or nose).

To be honest, it is a mess…

English spelling is ridiculous. Sew and new don’t rhyme. Kernel and colonel do. When you see an ough, you might need to read it out as ‘aw’ (thought), ‘ow’ (drought), ‘uff’ (tough), ‘off’ (cough), ‘oo’ (through), or ‘oh’ (though). The ea vowel is usually pronounced ‘ee’ (weak, please, seal, beam) but can also be ‘eh’ (bread, head, wealth, feather). Those two options cover most of it – except for a handful of cases, where it’s ‘ay’ (break, steak, great). Oh wait, one more… there’s earth. No wait, there’s also heart.

The English spelling system, if you can even call it a system, is full of this kind of thing. Yet not only do most people raised with English learn to read and write it; millions of people who weren’t raised with English learn to use it too, to a very high level of accuracy.

Admittedly, for a non-native speaker, such mastery usually involves a great deal of confusion and frustration. Part of the problem is that English spelling looks deceptively similar to other languages that use the same alphabet but in a much more consistent way. You can spend an afternoon familiarising yourself with the pronunciation rules of Italian, Spanish, German, Swedish, Hungarian, Lithuanian, Polish and many others, and credibly read out a text in that language, even if you don’t understand it. Your pronunciation might be terrible, and the pace, stress and rhythm would be completely off, and no one would mistake you for a native speaker – but you could do it. Even French, notorious for the spelling challenges it presents learners, is consistent enough to meet the bar. There are lots of silent letters, but they’re in predictable places. French has plenty of rules, and exceptions to those rules, but they can all be listed on a reasonable number of pages.

English is in a different league of complexity. The most comprehensive description of its spelling – the Dictionary of the British English Spelling System by Greg Brooks (2015) – runs to more than 450 pages as it enumerates all the ways particular sounds can be represented by letters or combinations of letters, and all the ways particular letters or letter combinations can be read out as sounds.

From the early Middle Ages, various European languages adopted and adapted the Latin alphabet. So why did English end up with a far more inconsistent orthography than any other? The basic outline of the messy history of English is widely known: the Anglo-Saxon tribes bringing Old English in the 5th century, the Viking invasions beginning in the 8th century adding Old Norse to the mix, followed by the Norman Conquest of the 11th century and the French linguistic takeover. The moving and mixing of populations, the growth of London and the merchant class in the 13th and 14th centuries. The contact with the Continent and the balance among Germanic, Romance and Celtic cultural forces. No language Academy was established, no authority for oversight or intervention in the direction of the written form. English travelled and wandered and haphazardly tied pieces together. As the blogger James Nicoll put it in 1990, English ‘pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary’.

But just how does spelling factor into all this? It wasn’t as if the rest of Europe didn’t also contend with a mix of tribes and languages. The remnants of the Roman Empire comprised Germanic, Celtic and Slavic communities spread over a huge area. Various conquests installed a ruling-class language in control of a population that spoke a different language: there was the Nordic conquest of Normandy in the 10th century (where they now write French with a pretty regular system); the Ottoman Turkish rule over Hungary in the 16th and 17th centuries (which now has very consistent spelling rules for Hungarian); Moorish rule in Spain in the 8th to 15th centuries (which also has very consistent spelling). True, other languages did have official academies and other government attempts at standardisation – but those interventions have largely only ever succeeded at implementing minor changes to existing systems in very specific areas. English wasn’t the only language to pick the pockets of others for useful words.

The answer to the weirdness of English has to do with the timing of technology. The rise of printing caught English at a moment when the norms linking spoken and written language were up for grabs, and so could be hijacked by diverse forces and imperatives that didn’t coordinate with each other, or cohere, or even have any distinct goals at all. If the printing press has arrived earlier in the life of English, or later, after some of the upheaval had settled, things might have ended up differently…

Why is English spelling so weird and unpredictable? Don’t blame the mix of languages; look to quirks of timing and technology: “Typos, tricks, and misprints,” from Arika Okrent (@arikaokrent).

* Douglas Coupland


As we muse on the mother tongue, we might spare a thought for a man who used it to wonderful effect: Seymour Wilson “Budd” Schulberg. The son of B. P. Schulberg (head production at Paramount Pictures in it’s 1930s-30s heyday) and Adeline Jaffe Schulberg (who founded one of Hollywood’s most successful talent/literary agencies), Budd went into the family business, finding success as a screenwriter, television producer, novelist, and sports writer. He is probably best remembered for his novels What Makes Sammy Run? and The Harder They Fall, his Academy Award-winning screenplay for On the Waterfront, and his (painfully prescient) screenplay for A Face in the Crowd.


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