Monday, October 31, 2011

Sward Soars

Santa Cruz poet Robert Sward (photo: Alan Lundell)
Gathering this Sunday at artist/sculptor Coeleen Kiebert's garden studio overlooking the Pacific to celebrate the publication by Red Hen Press of New and Selected Poems 1957-2011 by Robert Sward. Poets and artists in great abundance. Many of the Santa Cruz cogniscenti showed up at Coeleen's including local columnist Bruce Bratton, poets Len Anderson, David Swenger, Tilly Shaw, T. Mike Walker, Joanna Martin, Robin Lysne. Stephen Kessler, Dean Cervine, Sun Lundell. Angela Blessing was there, along with Bruce Damer, Elke Maus, Ken Adams and dozens of other colorful folk I did not recognize. Encouraged by his many admirers, Sward roared and soared. The event was videoed by Alan and Sun Lundell.

Sward's wife Gloria Alford created the cover art Words, Words, Words for her husband's book. In Gloria's painting the alphabet seems to be emerging from the walls of a cave--as if humans were only just beginning to discover the uses of language.

Sward often uses humor as a wedge to pry open and examine the insoluable complexities of ordinary life. Some of his poems consist of imagined conversations with his dead father, a Chicago Jewish podiatrist turned AMORC  mystic, the subject of Sward's collection Rosicrucian in the Basement. For example:


"We walk with angels
and they are our feet."

"'Vibrating energy packets,'" he calls them. "'Bundles of soul
in a world of meat.'  Early warning system--
dry skin and brittle nails;
feeling of numbness and cold;
these are symptoms; they mean something.
I see things physicians miss."

"All you have to do is open your eyes, just open your eyes,
and you'll see: seven-eighths of everything is invisible, a spirit
inside the spirit.
The soul is rooted in the foot.
As your friend Bly says, 'The soul longs to go down';
feet know the way to the other world,
that world where people are awake.
So do me a favor: Dream me no dreams.
A dreamer is someone who's asleep."

"You know, the material world is infinite,
but boring infinite," he says, cigarette in hand,
little wings fluttering at his ankles.

"And women," he says, smacking his head,
"four times as many foot problems as men.
High heels are the culprit."

"I may be a podiatrist, but I know what I'm about:
feet. Feet don't lie,
don't cheat, don't kiss ass. Truth is,
peoples' feet are too good for them."

Robert Sward and Gloria Alford in Coeleen's garden

Monday, October 17, 2011

A Memorable Halloween

Attila the Hun
A few years ago, August O' Connor and I were invited to one of Santa Cruz's most exclusive social events--Kate Bowland's annual Halloween Party. Kate Bowland is a legend in midwife circles, has delivered more than a thousand babies, and helped make more people-friendly both home and hospital births in California. And Kate knows everyone. So her party was sure to be a "scene".

The rules were simple. Show up as some recognizable character and for the first two hours, play that character's role. Afterwards you can be yourself. Kate was dressed as her favorite childhood hero--Annie Oakley--and would cock and fire an empty BB gun into the air whenever she pleased. Her husband Steve was dressed as Mikhail Gorbachev, complete with forehead birthmark, grey suit with red star on the lapel. Steve greeted every guest with a hearty Russian bearhug: "Welcome to the party!"

Later in the kitchen, Kate told us that many of the stories about Annie Oakley that her father "read" to her as a child were most probably the products of her father's imagination. She was never able to find many of these stories in any Annie Oakley bios.

Entirely unplanned, one woman came as Jackie Kennedy and another as Marilyn Monroe. After sizing up each other across the room they got together and treated the guests to a splendid cat fight. Most of the guests agreed that this tussle of celebrities was one of the evening's high points.

I decided to engage with Atilla the Hun who was sitting in a throne-like chair royally observing the proceedings with a jaundiced eye. "Hi, Atilla," I said, "You're obviously a very powerful man. But I sense that you are in need of my help." I was wearing what looked like a corny Batman (or cat) mask with a green Celtic knot on my chest.

"Need your help? I need to kill and eat you. Who are you anyway?"

Atilla was obviously really getting into his role.

"Never mind me," I said. "See that woman over there? Let's call her over here."

I gesture to August and she slithers over to Atilla's throne. "This is Lady Luck," I say. "And I am Lord Luck. Would you accept our help? Do you agree that you need us?"

"Cancel the death threat," says Atilla. "The help of both of you I most definitely can use."

Even a barbarian warlord recognizes how important it is to have luck on your side.

Later, after the meal and the customary intoxicants, I wandered out onto Kate's deck to discover King Satan himself lying in a beach chair looking out over the lights of Santa Cruz and into the darkness of Monterey Bay. I sat next to him and shared one of my long-term fantasies--not as legendary Lord Luck but as ordinary Nick Herbert.

"Mephistopheles, I presume?"

"That's me."

"As a scientist, Meph, I've always been fascinated by the Faust legend--the notion of negotiating with the Devil himself for some deep wisdom not accessible to others. So I'm really excited to meet you and want to hear more about that famous "Faustian bargain". Do you take my soul and give me deep wisdom in exchange?"

"That soul stuff is really old-fashioned," the guy in the devil suit replied, taking another sip from his bottle of beer. "The price for deep wisdom is very different from what you've been told."

"What's the price?"

"The price for deep wisdom, Nick, is separation--separation from the life of ordinary humanity. End of interview."

I left Satan to enjoy his view of the Bay and am still contemplating his version of the Faustian bargain. He was not really Satan, after all--just an ordinary guy in a mask at Kate Bowland's party. But his answer is certainly worth thinking about.

Thanks, Kate, for a truly memorable Halloween.

On other fronts, Los Gatos sci-fi author and Renaissance man, Rudy Rucker, recently published on his blog, the simplest description of quantum tantra that I have ever read. Read Rudy's post and inform yourself about the next big quantum science/religion/medicine/recreation of the future.

Lord and Lady Luck

Sunday, October 9, 2011

How to Build Time Machine

Faster Than Light--Japanese Edition
The hottest news in physics this fall was the alleged discovery at CERN that neutrinos travel slightly faster than light. Most physicists believe this measurement is the result of some as yet undiscovered systematic error but already a handful of theoretical physicists are claiming that they have a new theory which can explain these spectacular results.

A few years ago I published a book Faster Than Light: Superluminal Loopholes in Physics that explored possibilities for exceeding Einstein's well-known universal speed limit. Note for the record: I did not anticipate superluminal neutrinos. But in that book I do make the claim that if superluminal particles exist, then it would be possible to build a time machine--that is, a device that sends signals from the future into the past, allowing us to "know the future" before it actually happens. Somewhere in that book I may have actually posted a design for such a device. Why else would the Japanese edition of this book (pictured above) be called How to Build Time Machine?

Can one actually build a time machine using superluminal particles?  Suppose such a device works by sending signals back and forth from the Moon. Both on Moon and Earth you have access to spinning disks whose edges travel at 1/2 light speed. Mounted on these disks are sender/receivers of superluminal particles that travel at twice the speed of light. For ease of calculation assume that the Earth-Moon distance is 2 light seconds.

1. How would you construct a time machine (TM) using these ingredients?

2. How far into the future would your TM reach?

3. Could such TMs be cascaded to extend their range indefinitely?

Send solutions to I will publish the most interesting Time Machine proposal on this blog and award the winner a copy of Physics on All Fours.

Warning: You may have to invent some slightly new physics to solve this problem. For instance, how does the velocity addition rule work for FTL particles? And how does one correctly interpret the
space-dependent clock shift in the Lorentz Transformations?

Gentlemen (and Ladies), start your (faster than light) engines.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Sirag Numbers Enter the Canon

Saul-Paul Sirag lecturing at Esalen Institute
The Sirag Numbers, first arising in the context of "accidental commutation" in the quantum theory of angular momentum (and dedicated to Saul-Paul on his 72nd birthday), were first defined on this blog and partially "tamed" by myself and Saul-Paul Sirag.

Recently these numbers have attracted the attention of the larger mathematical community (thank you, Antti Karttunem) and are now listed in the Online Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences as Integer Sequence A196224. The Sirag Numbers were "completely tamed" by Jack Brennan, Ray Chandler, Charles P. Greathouse and Harvey P. Dale who devised formulas which generate all Sirag numbers. Happy birthday, Saul-Paul! Now that this sequence has been officially recognized, the one thing lacking is to discover an application for Sirag Numbers in the real world.

Also in the news this week, sci-fi author Rudy Rucker paid me a visit at the Quantum Tantric Ashram where we discussed philosophy and literature in my redwood forest retreat. Over tea and stollen, Rudy presented me with copies of his book of paintings Better Worlds and his latest novel, set in Santa Cruz CA, Jim and the Flims which chronicles a throroughly Ruckeresque vision of the afterlife. Hint: the Rucker afterlife is not even close to what you've been taught in school; it more resembles some seriously twisted DMT trip.

Also this weekend Beverly Rubik, a colleague from the Consciousness Theory Group and the Esalen Seminars on the Nature of Reality, invited me to Berkeley to give a talk at her Institute for Frontier Science.

Dr Beverly Rubik, PhD

I took Beverly's invitation as an opportunity to express my latest conceptions about quantum tantra and to read from my work-in-progress Harlot Nature. The talk was well-attended by a responsive crowd which included Dana Ullman, Jim Johnson and Allison Kennedy, the co-founder of the innovative Berkeley-based psychocyberdelic magazine Mondo 2000.

Nick performing at Institute for Frontier Science

After the talk Beverly treated Allison and I to supper at P. F. Chang's Chinese Bistro in Emeryville. Walking to Chang's in the dark our group was surprised by what appeared to be a hidden portal to another reality but when entered turned out to be a time tunnel memorializing the landscape's early inhabitants. Inside the portal, a parade of black stone slabs, each etched with text and pictures, told the story of Emeryville's former human habitation, brief by geological standards. A beautiful and informative piece of public art--the city of Emeryville's Shellmound Memorial.  

Entrance to Emeryville Shellmound Memorial