version of:   June 13, 2004

Chapter 10: Opening

Just when you think you have seen it all, when you feel you have covered the whole terrain, with your explanations taking everything into account, and you have developed the right habits to deal with anything foreseeable, the terrain under your feet may start to shift, the ground may open up, and whole new dimensions of reality may become suddenly come into the picture. This has happened time and again in physics, with discoveries like thermodynamics, relativity, and quantum theory, and it is likely to keep happening for the indefinite future. It is likely to happen for you too, when you keep experimenting.

Experiment 1.4: Surround Sound

We have made a few giant leaps, from studying the subject-object reversal with a single object, to including all objects in the universe. Yet we have not at all exhausted our options. So far we have only experimented with our sense of vision, and there is a whole new world of sound waiting to be explored, as well as worlds of taste and smell and touch.

Starting with sound, pick a particular object that makes sound: leaves rustling in the wind, a clock ticking, or a fridge humming. First feel out the normal situation: how you are the subject hearing the sounds that the object makes. After becoming thoroughly and consciously familiar with that normal pattern, reverse it: let the object hear you, rather than you hearing the object.

After having done this for several sessions, and written reports about it, experiment with a more subtle reversal: rather than the object hearing you, let the sound directly hear you. Then, after a few more sessions, direct your attention to all sounds that you can hear, and simultaneously do the reversal, letting all sounds simultaneously hear you, rather than you hearing the sounds.

After sufficient experience with sound, repeat the same set of experiments with smell and taste. Finally, conduct these experiments with your sense of touch. Instead of you touching the floor, let the floor touch you. Instead of you feeling the wind, let the wind feel you. You can extend this to your own bodily functioning: instead of you taking a breath, you can let your breath take you.

Letting It Speak

There are a lot of different experiments, packed into the brief description above, and undoubtedly you can think of many more variations on these themes. In the light of this embarrassment of riches, it can be tempting to just pick a few shining beads here and there. That would be fun to do, but you would not wind up with more than just a few interesting impressions. It would be much more rewarding to create a full necklace or two; or three or more.

Scientific exploration is not concerned with trophies, with feathers in one's cap, with random examples of fun stuff. The goal is to discern patterns, and ever larger patterns. For this reason, it is essential to pick one topic, and really take your time exploring it. Starting with sound, make sure that you get equally familiar with sound reversal as you have become with sight reversal in the previous chapters, before moving on to the other senses.

That way, in the end you have a full landscape of experimental results that you can survey. Since you have explored every part of it, you are then in the position to let it speak to you, and to let it tell you what its story is, what the internal logic is that wants to speak through all the particular results that you have assembled.

Extra Room

When you start doing the series of sound experiments, and also when writing your lab reports about them, make sure that you pay careful attention to the differences in character between sound and sight. When an object visually presents itself, we almost completely identify the visual image of the object and the object itself. This is very different for sounds. With sounds, there is extra room for experimentation.

When we hear the sound of a machine humming away, while we are sipping a cup of coffee in a cafe, we may not know what type of machine it is that is making the sound, and we might not even discern its proper location. There is just this sound that is distinctive and that is just present. This type of just-being-present will not occur with visual images. We can draw attention to a humming sound and ask ``where does that sound come from?'', but we won't point to a chair and ask ``where does that image come from?''

We can make use of this distinction by introducing an extra degree of freedom in the experiments, as suggested above. The simplest approach, and the best one to start with, is to focus on one particular object that is both visually and audibly present, right in front of us. And in this case it is important to start out by associating the sound directly with the object making the sound, in the same way that we associate the image of an object with the object.


But even in this simplest case, it is equally important to then experiment with disassociating the sound and the object. Instead of letting the object hear you, focus on the sound, and let the sound hear you. At first this shift might be easier if you look away from the object, ignoring its visual presence while focusing on its audible presence, and then on the sound itself.

Having done this a few times, you can then try another variation: look straight at the object while still focusing on subject-object reversal primarily with the sound, rather than the object. After a while, when this new experience has stabilized, it will be fun to switch to and from. For a while, perhaps a minute, let the object hear you; for another minute, let the sound of the object hear you; for yet another minute, let the object itself hear you again. And so on.

How short can you make these intervals while still remaining clearly aware of the difference between these two ways of doing a reversal? Also, can you make the reversal more distinct? When switching from the object to the sound, can you deemphasize the fact that the sound is the sound associated with the object?

Can you let the sound be present as sound, even though you are watching the object, and without denying that there is a link? Can you liberate the sound from the sight, allowing both of them to be present, without making any judgment about their connection, just as you have liberated the subject and object from their standard relationship, giving them the freedom to reverse their relative roles?

Surprising Surprises

The move from sight to sound, and the move from sound-of-object to sound-as-such, are two examples of something that has happened in science many times. Throughout the history of science and mathematics, there have been periods where it seemed that the whole stage had been illuminated, that every part of it had been opened up or exploration, and that science was coming to an end, with only details left to be sorted out.

In the previous chapter, we have come across irrational and imaginary numbers. They showed up as uninvited guests at a party, and what is worse, they arrived at a party where there was no room left: even all standing room had been fully taken. There seemed to be no place for them to land. And yet, there they were! We have talked about the struggle involved in loosening the rules, in order to allow them to enter, but there was another problem confounding the situation: there did not seem to be any room for them to enter.

In the case of the irrational numbers, the one-dimensional number line was already filled to the brim with the rational numbers. No matter how small a segment you cut out at any place in the number line, you will find infinitely many rational numbers, seemingly standing shoulder to shoulder. Yet, as the Greeks discovered to their dismay, you can prove that the square root of 2 is not among the rationals. Either you have to conclude that it is simply not a number, as the Greeks did, or you have to admit that, yes, there was more room on the number line after all, as mathematicians did a few hundred years ago.

In the case of the imaginary numbers, the solution was different. This time the intuition that there was no room for them on the number line was correct. Instead, they occupy their very own number line, at right angles to the original number line, and both lines together span the complex plane. Not only is there no end to surprises in finding more room, each time we do find more room, there is an extra surprise in the particular way in which we find this extra room.


In physics, similar surprises happened. When electricity and magnetism were studied in sufficient detail, it became clear that they were far more intimately connected than was originally assumed. They were both seen to be but different aspects of a single feature of nature called electromagnetism.

The theory of electromagnetism, as a theory, is an example of what we call a unification, a further theoretical step. Although we often talk about the `unification of electricity and magnetism' it is important to keep this distinction in mind: as a feature of nature, there is no such thing as a unification: the dis-unifying split into an emphasis on electricity and on magnetism is a human artifact; these projections are like shadows on a wall, made in such a way as to simplify our initial analysis.

It was soon realized that the laws of electromagnetism implied the possibilities of waves, oscillating fields with both electric and magnetic components. Light was understood as a prime example of electromagnetic waves, and its longer-wave-length cousins, radio waves, were discovered soon thereafter. And where there were waves, there should of course be a medium carrying the waves. This medium was given the name ether.

No Ether

This was the physical picture around the year 1900: even though physicists had previously thought that they had found all that there could be in space, namely matter and light, they had come to the surprising conclusion that there was an altogether new component present in space, pervading all of space: this newly discovered ether.

As was the case on an abstract level with the discovery of irrational numbers, that pervaded the space of numbers as uninvited guests, the ether was an equally uninvited guest in physical space. But here the story has yet another even more surprising twist. The guest did not linger for long: just when its presence had come to be accepted, the guest disappeared into a puff of mathematics.

Experiments at measuring ether drift, the relative motion of the Earth with respect to the ether, different at different places in the Earth's orbit around the Sun, first showed that there was something wrong: no such drift was found. Then Einstein showed in his special relativity theory that not only was there no need for an ether; what is more, no consistent fluid of any type, no matter how subtle or refined, could play the role of an ether.

With the demise of the ether, light kept shining and radio music kept playing. We just had to learn to accept that empty space has the capacity to carry electromagnetic waves, even though there seems to be no carrier. After first making room for the ether, we had to make another intellectual somersault in making room for waves in emptiness. Another surprising type of new surprise.

No End

When you spend enough time and care in exploring the modalities of taste and smell and touch, you will no doubt discover numerous other surprises, different ways of conducting subject-object reversal, made possible by aspects of these three sense domains that differ from both sight and sound. The possibilities for further experimentation are endless.

For example, you can combine these modalities in several ways. When you bite into a cheese cracker, you can see, hear, taste, smell and touch the cracker. And in turn you can let the cracker see, hear, taste, smell and touch you. Or you can let the sound hear you, the taste taste you, and so on. You can even assign a few of the sense impressions to the object, while `liberating' the others, as we have seen above. How many combinations can you discern experimentally as really being distinct?

And there are other ways in which this type of experimentation is endless. We haven't even exhausted our treatment of sense modalities. The sense of heat and cold, for example, is different from the classical five that we mentioned above. On a hot day, you can let the heat feel you, rather than letting you feel the heat.

And beyond that, we can move in yet new directions. The next two chapters will open up two completely different possibilities, the first one related to thoughts and feelings, the second one exploring the dimension of time.

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