"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious" ~ Albert Einstein

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Avawatz Mountain and McCullough Mountain

Much like us, mountains often seem to have personalities.  At the very least, each mountain has its own distinctive feel, with there being a veritably infinite set of variations amongst the mountains out there.  Sounds crazy, but it seems like many people who spend some time in the mountains, come away saying something similar.  But, have you ever had that experience where you see somebody in photos, or hear about a person through third parties, but when you finally meet them in person, they seem quite different from what you expected and built up in your mind.   More rarely, some folks turn out to be almost exactly what you expected.  Over the Christmas break, I went on a road trip that involved hiking two different desert peaks - Avawatz Mountain outside Baker, California and McCullough Mountain just over the border in Nevada - that were fine examples of both scenarios.

Avawatz turned out to be different than what I had expected for a few reasons, starting with the drive in to the “trailhead”.  The guidebook talks about what sounds to be an easy-to-reach 2wd trailhead and a 4wd trailhead that is further in.  The 2wd trailhead is at the base of the mountains at what's called Mormon Springs.  The hike from there is around 13 miles rough trip and perhaps close to 4,000 feet of gain.  Depending on how far you can make it up the 4wd road section, the hike could be as short as six miles round trip, with considerably less gain.  Well, apparently, things have changed since the guide book was written.  In fact, based on other reports I have read, something must have changed in the past couple years.  The 4wd road was gone.  And, I mean gone, like obliterated, an apparent victim of flash flooding, which left only a rutted out wash instead, with no trace of the old road remaining.  Even the 2wd road was rougher than anticipated and one section stymied me on two attempts in my 4wd 4runner.  I could have probably eventually made it through, even with my balding tires, but I get nervous with stuff like that when I am solo, so I ended up parking about a mile shy of the 2wd parking, making for a 15 mile day and roughly 5000' of gain. 

All this turned out to be advantageous when it came to the photography, though.  As I started out for the peak in the morning, a little ways down in the desert was THE place to be, as the sun came out for a beautiful sunrise light-show.  The morning lighting was so moody and colorful and the hillsides of Avawatz Mountains were also briefly lit up with wonderful, pastel-like hues of color.  After roughly a mile of soaking in this amazing light, I entered the canyon leading into the mountains.  This timing was perfect because the sky and lighting got pretty bleak once the sunrise was over.   Although the canyon portion wasn’t the mindless, easy stroll up a road I was expecting, it was still rather pleasant, albeit a bit more tiring.  Some parts of the wash were a bit messy and rough, but many stretches were sandy and pleasant enough.  I love the feelings of these desert canyons at times.  They seem like a magical place - focal points for the mysterious energy of the desert.  Sometimes, I swear you can almost feel a timeless, serene energy reverberating off the canyon walls, especially so when they are glowing golden in a late afternoon light.  What I guess was a raven, maybe a hawk, would occasionally fly by, squawking over me with that classic sound you often hear in a movie with a desert scene.  It's mysterious call would echo off the canyon walls.  It reminded me of that scene in the The Doors movie when Morrison wanders off in the desert, minus the hallucinations since I wasn’t on Peyote myself.  

After a few miles in the canyon, I found myself at the small, abandoned radio tower of sorts along the ridge.  Shortly before this spot, I was able to pick the old road back up where it climbs out of the canyon putting a safe distance between itself and the flash flooding below.  From the tower, I followed the road as it contoured around to the hillsides on the far side.  I picked a semi-random spot to leave the road and gain the ridgeline, but not before meeting the crux of the route.  This consists of a steep hillside with white cliffs, which was now towering in front of me.  It mostly looked like it would be a bit tiring, but I could see obvious ways around the cliffs, so I wasn’t too worried about them.  In fact, it wasn’t too bad overall.  I just took my time and next thing I knew I was on top and starting out along the ridgeline to Avawatz.  This portion was pretty long too, but I had some amazing clouds to gaze at and occupy my mind as I strolled along.  The clouds looked surreal: popcorn shaped puffs, forming checkerboard like patterns off to the horizon in both directions.  I was lucky to have these clouds spice up an otherwise bleak, gray sky.  In addition, the timing of my arrival at the summit was rather fortuitous, in that all the clouds and bleak lighting I had since after sunrise, mostly cleared up right after I got there, leaving me crisp, clear vistas with just the right amount of clouds to spice up the view.  Some of the remaining popcorn-puff clouds left a checkerboard like pattern of shadows across the desert floor to the East.   I rested for some time, took photos, snacked and soaked in the views as much as I could before starting down.  Most of the hike back down was uneventful.  I enjoyed snapping photos of the hillsides on the way down, which were now vibrant and colorful with the bright, clear afternoon light.  When I got back to the car, I enjoyed a beer and relaxed in the back of the 4runner cooking up some dinner – black bean soup with a can of chicken thrown in.  A pretty tasty meal for a hungry hiker.  After dinner I packed up all my stuff and slowly made my way down the rough road and on to McCullough Mountain.

McCullough Mountain turned out to be almost exactly what I expected and built up on my mind.  Right from the drive in, McCullough felt a bit familiar, despite never having the pleasure of meeting this mountain in person before.  There was roughly eight miles of dirt road to get to the start of the hike near Pine Springs.  This road was in considerably better condition than the road to Avawatz and the miles went by quickly.  There were still some rough spots, but at least I could get above 10 mph quite often, unlike with Avawatz where I felt like my speedometer was on zero most of the time.  I took a few night sky photos on the way in, but between it not being the season for Milky Way photos and the moon being out I had a hard time getting a nice photograph of our galaxy.  Still though, I did get one, or two, of the dirt road and Joshua trees with a nice star-covered sky.  With it already being dark and my long hike earlier in the day, I retired to the back of the 4Runner for a good night’s sleep shortly after I arrived.

It was awfully cold when I started the hike to McCullough the next morning.  It was the kind of cold where I felt like I had to keep moving just to avoid going hypothermic.  I tried to stop and take a few photos of the morning light as the sun began to rise, but my fingers were stinging and going numb almost instantly, accompanied by rather intense shivering.  All this initially made photography a particularly unpleasant activity, resulting in only a couple photos of marginal quality.  But, once that sun started to rise, it warmed up really, really fast and next thing I knew I was removing a few layers.

McCullough has a reputation of being a navigation, or orienteering, challenge and right from the start I could tell it would live up to this reputation.  It’s not even real obvious you are hiking into actual mountains in the beginning, let alone having a visible summit, or high point, you can aim for.  Initially, McCullough is hidden behind an intervening ridgeline covered in many similar looking hill tops, or high points.  Really, it looks like you’re just hiking into a jumble of bushy, desert hillsides, with all directions looking the same.  There are many washes to choose from and no real clear high point of reference that makes one more appealing to take than the other, in so far as being sure it’s taking you in a direction towards the actual highpoint of the range.  A topo map and compass would make all this easier, but even that would be challenging.  Luckily, I cheated and downloaded a pre-planned route I came up with into my GPS and mindlessly followed that to the top.  Although, having my GPS fail on me more than once before when I needed it, I was at least smart enough to vigilantly make note of my surroundings in case I had to hike back without any electronic assistance. 

Overall, the hike was very pleasant, much of which involved hiking up sandy tree-lined washes while being bathed in the warm, golden early-morning sunlight and listening to birds chirp some morning song.  Apparently, the mountain is extremely popular with cows, as there were cattle tracks all over often forming a clear herd path.  At first, I thought of the old saying, “follow the cows home”, in the event that my GPS actually did die, but it soon became clear cows had been up and down every canyon I came across, leaving there tracks unhelpful in choosing which way to go.  Maybe all the tracks were a result of them getting lost in this maze of pine, creosote and sage.  It didn't take long to get to the summit and I think I was on top before 9AM, enjoying the views off into every direction.  I could see Las Vegas peeking out behind some intervening hillsides.  It sure looked tiny from my comparatively lofty vantage point.  I could also see the massive solar power plant near state-line.  Not too long into my stay I heard some cows that were making quite a racket down in the canyon I had just hiked up.  On my way down, I noticed that it looked like a family consisting of an adult female, two calves and an ever-watchful bull that let me know I better steer (no pun-intended) clear as he let out some loud bellows that echoed across the canyon. When I finally made eye-contact with him, he reminded me of a neighbor’s dog back home who would always give the obligatory warning barks, but you could tell by the look in his eye and the energy he gave off that he was relaxed with no real desire to come after you.  He just had to do what a guard dog is supposed to do, that is, bark at strangers.  Likewise with this Bull.  But I kept to the far side of the canyon to be safe, which suddenly didn’t seem as wide as it did before.  Maybe I made more of a big deal out of this than I needed to, but tank-sized animals with large horns making loud bellowing noises always make me a little nervous. 

I had a nice lunch along the crest of the intervening ridgeline that was about halfway between my car and the summit.  However, I wasn’t sitting quite where I thought I was sitting.  Turns out that section of ridgeline looked just like a saddle I still needed to cross over to get into the correct wash that heads back to my car.  So, even with the GPS in hand, I still managed to not traverse over to the saddle like I should have, instead dropping down too early and heading down the entirely wrong canyon!  Luckily I caught my mistake after not too long, but it still left me with an extra couple hundred feet of hillside I had to now climb back up, so I could cross back over into the correct canyon.  Consulting a topo map later on, I noticed the canyon I took by accident would have taken me pretty far from my car if I had not caught my error.  I would have found myself standing at the foothills of the McCullough Mountain range with over a mile of intervening ridgelines and washes between me and my car and wondering where the hell I was.  But, luckily that didn’t happen and I arrived back at my car for a celebratory beer to toast off a couple of nice, adventurous days in the desert.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Colosseum Mountain via Sawmill Pass, September 18th, 2014

The eastern escarpment of the Sierra Nevada is an impressive geological feature, rising from the desert floor of Owens Valley around 4500' feet in elevation all the way up to granite spires towering some 10,000 feet above at elevations exceeding 14,000' feet in spots.  Today, most of the trail heads are reached on paved roads that climb into the mountains some distance, giving the hiker an advantage of starting their trip at anywhere between 7000' and 10,000' feet in elevation.  However, there are still a handful of trails that start all the way down on the hot, parched desert floor, before climbing up and over the Sierra crest at what's called one of the High Passes.  Four notable such trails are the Shepherd's Pass Trail, Taboose Pass Trail, Baxter Pass Trail and Sawmill Pass Trail.  I've always wanted to get over each of these passes and my goal for this trip was to climb Colosseum Mountain via the Sawmill Pass Trail - a trip of around 24 miles and roughly 8500' of gain.

Eastern Aspect of the Sierra Nevada Near The Whitney Region - as seen during a hike of Mount Inyo (and Keynot)

As some readers of my blog may know I've been fighting a stubborn, chronic ankle injury that started out as slight degeneration of the tendon and bursa and turned into who knows what.  It's been slowly getting better over the years, but until now I have been unable to build up the fitness and acclimatization to take on a day hike like Colosseum Mountain.  What finally got me over the hump was practicing Yoga, which seems to be keeping the chronic irritation at bay, if not curing it altogether.  I'm happy to say my ankle did great this day, with no ill effects.  Namaste!  ;-)

I started my journey the night before, driving up to the trail head with plans to spend the night and get an early morning start.  An early morning start is an absolute requirement for these trails.  Temperatures on the desert floor can be in excess of 100 degrees, which is no way to start a long, steep and waterless climb into the mountains.  I arrived at the trailhead on a dark, moonless night and got out of my car to scope out where the trail started.  Right away I started hearing some strange noises that sure sounded like something big walking around a ways off in the desert.  It creeped me out a bit, but turned out to only be something flapping around in the wind on the big wilderness sign that I thought marked the beginning of the trail - a mistake, as I found out the following morning.  Feeling better and having that settled, I climbed back in my car for a few hours sleep.

I woke up to my alarm at 2:45 AM and had what's lately been my breakfast of champions before a hike - my favorite cinnamon cereal with 3 scoops of Hemp Protein powder and vanilla flavored almond milk.  It's a small, light feeling breakfast, but provides energy for quite some time.  I finished that, put on my hiking boots, grabbed my pack which was already good to go from preparations the night before and headed out on what I thought was the trail.  Unfortunately, this petered out very quickly, leaving me traveling cross country across the desert floor, weaving around creosote and sage and hopping over rocks.  Not an encouraging start to this hike.  Thankfully, I had brought my GPS, but initially mixed up two different tracks on there.  One was an accurate Google Earth track and one was an approximate topo map track.  After some time, I finally figured out which was the right track and used it to gain the trail.  Not an auspicious start!

Soon, the trail started to steeply climb up the desert hillside at the base of the mountains.  It was very dark and I couldn't make out much of my surroundings, which made for a quiet, meditative climb in the cool air and rhythmic pace I had set, with the only thing in my visual field being the small patch of ground my headlamp was lighting up.  The only thing to disturb the mood were coyotes howling off in the distance.  Sometimes they would sound close and sometimes far away.  I couldn't help but wonder if it was a couple different packs howling at each other, just like when a bark-fest gets set off between all the dogs in our neighborhood at home.  If you have ever heard coyotes howl they can have an eerie sound and feeling to them at times.  I think this might have been the first thing that set me off on a bit of a funk.  The next thing that did was that it began feeling like I was making zero progress getting out of the desert and into the mountains, despite the amount of hard work already being put into this hike.  My legs muscles were already burning and I was feeling a little over exerted for so early on in the hike.  It was about this time I also started to realize the smokey smell I noticed back at the car was smoke from a forest fire that blew in during the night.  As I got a little higher, I was able to tell Owens Valley was covered in a blanket of smoke.  Suddenly, I started to wonder if I should even be working out in this as much as I already had, let alone go in for the long haul to Colosseum Mountain.  More to add to my funk!

I kept going and finally made it to a section where if feels like one has finally entered the mountains, as the trail rounds a corner and traverses into Sawmill Canyon.  The trail drops down a little ways to the stream coming down the canyon.  Here, the trail goes through a moderately wooded section and it was very dark in here and bushy in spots.  I think because of my funk I already had going, I felt a little vulnerable and nervous hiking through here and a bit more on alert for animals (or, even the boogeyman!) than usual.  It was by this time that I started to feel the remote and secluded nature of this trail for the first time and it just seemed like a perfect place to run into some wild life like a mountain lion.  On the positive side, I did get a second wind here and felt better hiking up the steep trail.  Also, I got the impression that the smoke was clearing some, being the most dense down in the valley.  After not too long, I could see the first signs of light from the coming day.   The predawn, early morning light greeted me as I slowly climbed out of the wooded area and I felt like the Sun and I were both climbing out of a darkness, one that was filled with all the negative feelings I had on the way up, but all of which were purged by the coming daylight.

Rising From The Darkness

The Light That Rescued Me From The Darkness

It wasn't too long from here that I finally made it to one of the minor goals along the way - Sawmill Meadow.  The meadow also had a bit of an eerie feel to it, as well, but mainly due to a sky mixed with smoke and some dark clouds.  There was a fall color on the ground, with the green being long gone during this very dry year.  I was also a bit dismayed by what I saw at the head of the meadow, which was a rather substantial uphill that had to be tackled to get to the next milestone of Sawmill Lake.  My second wind was petering out a bit so I had a snack here and slowly headed out towards Sawmill Lake.

Sawmill Meadow

Following The Trail Above Sawmill Meadow

When I got to Sawmill Lake I started to feel like I made some serious progress, as I was now about 7 miles in and had around 5,500 feet of gain out of the way, leaving around 5 miles and some 3000' of gain to the summit.  However, I felt like I was hitting a wall again.  Admittedly, I did not go into this hike with the optimum level of fitness I would normally like to have, or should have, and I was definitely feeling it.  I started to consider and even become open to the idea that I might only try for the pass, which would make for a great hike in and of itself.  I just didn't see how I was going to make the peak at this point.  While thinking about all this, I filtered some water, refilled my water bottles and had another snack.  After fueling up and resting for a bit, I started out again for the pass.

Sawmill Lake

Old Kitchen Set at Sawmill Lake

At first, I thought the pass was at a low point to the left of lake in the background, but it actually headed to what looked like a higher point to the right.  The going was a bit steeper and more tiring than it first appeared from the lake.  I still felt like I was hitting a wall and one dark corner of my mind was even trying to make me give up on the pass, but no way I was going to give in to that.  I trudged on.  The pass itself sort of snuck up on me, because next thing I knew I was staring at the big sign at the pass itself and the Sierra Nevada opened up before my eyes out to the West.  This whole area on the back of the pass had a remote, wild and pristine feel to it.  One advantage to these grueling trails is that one is guaranteed to see few, if any, people in these parts.  So far, I had had the entire mountain range to myself, or so it seemed to me, which just added to the ambiance. There were also some moody clouds floating around adding to the scenery.

Sawmill Pass, Colosseum Col Is The Low Point In Distance Just Above Sign On Left.  The Ridge Partially Lit Up By Sunlight and Rising To The Right Leads to Colosseum Mountain, Still Out Of Sight

Heading Out From Sawmill Pass

My strategy for the whole day was to just take my time, make sure I never  got my heart rate up too high, or my breathing too labored, no matter how slow it meant I had to go.  I think this strategy worked out in the end, because I felt a wee bit rejuvenated a few minutes after I got to the pass.  With 9 miles and almost 7000' feet of gain done, I knew I got the majority of the work done for reaching the summit of Colosseum Mountain.  But still, Colosseum Col looked far away and the peak was still out of sight and I now I had some trail-less cross country travel plus what promised to be a bit of a loose, steep scramble up Colosseum. But, my newly-found energy and the beautiful landscape beckoned me on. I had to see what what was over there and I didn't want to give up while I still had something left in me, so I started out again towards the Col, which was my new "baby step" towards reaching the actual peak.  I was also relieved to see that the smoke was pretty much gone by now.  I really enjoyed this part going across the small valley towards the Col.  Some views opened up into Woods Lake Basin as the Sierra Nevada stretched out further with some tall, remote peaks towering in the distance.  There were many animal prints through here and I came across one bear print that had such interesting and almost human looking toes that I joked with myself about it being a Sasquatch print.

Looking Off Into The Woods Lake Basin

Sasquatch Print!?

After a mile, or so, of weaving around small rock walls and strolling across a few easy meadowy stretches, I reached a small lake near the base of Colosseum Mountain.  I refilled my water bottles and refueled one more time.  I wasn't far from the Col at this point, but it looked like a nice amount of boulder hopping to reach it.  Meanwhile, the slopes just above the lake didn't look too bad and there was even a rib that looked like it might offer some Class 2-3 scrambling, thereby avoiding any loose, sandy stuff.  So, I made the decision to head up here and it worked out pretty well.  It was steep and tiring, but I stuck with my strategy of strictly pacing myself at a speed that didn't over-exert.  Slowly, but surely, I made my way up this steepest part and onto some gentler slopes above that passed one false summit and brought the true summit into view.  It was during this part that I saw the only people I encountered the entire day.  Two people were over at the Col and starting up Colosseum Mountain shortly after me.  I got a bit annoyed, because I really enjoy getting into the moment on these isolated peaks by myself and on my own wavelength.  But, it did sound nice to say Hi and see how these guys made there way up here and if they were backpacking, or not.  However, it sounds like a lot of people are surprised to find out the Western summit is the higher one, because on your way up, the Eastern summit definitely does look higher.  In fact, I still have my doubts about all this.  I headed up the Western summit and found the register marking it as the "official" high point, but the Eastern summit still looked higher.  In fact, a small tower on the North Ridge even looked a few feet higher.  Ah well, I was too tired to care and I know these kinds of things can play tricks with the eye, so I felt satisfied just reaching the one with the register and I wasn't about to go explore the other spots.  Anyhow, either the guys got tricked, or they decided to visit the Eastern one first, giving me my solitude on the summit.  Actually, it was only one guy now, as I never did see his partner again.  Perhaps, he/she decided to forgo the summit.  After signing the register and snapping a few photos, I remembered the pizza that I had brought and became absolutely ravenous for it.  That made for one tasty snack!  I should have brought a napkin though, because I kept getting tomato sauce on my hands and having to wipe it off on my pants.  I was going to make for a nice smelling treat if I ran into that Sasquatch on the way down!  I took a few photos and reveled in the views for a bit, while also feeling a bit relieved that the rest was mostly downhill, even if it was roughly 12 miles of it!

Colosseum Mountain Summit View

Colosseum Mountain Summit View

Colosseum Mountain Summit View

I started down and got back to that steep part right when my legs suddenly started to feel extremely tired and wobbly.  It was looser and more treacherous coming down so I had to go real slow to maintain safe footing and not slip and hurt myself.  I got back down to the lake and rested one more time before heading back to Sawmill Pass.  I made my way through this part enjoying an apple as I walked and soaked in the views.  Before getting back to the pass I had about 400' of gain I had to get out of the way.  I started to hit a wall again, but I just went really slow, taking on only like 10-50' feet of walking at a time, before resting again.  It took awhile, but I eventually made it back to the pass.  I didn't stop long because now I was on a mission to get back.  I reached Sawmill lake again and then Sawmill Meadow.  After descending for what seemed like forever, I was greeted by a rather discouraging view.  I could now see down to the valley floor, which looked like a LONG ways down still.  My car was down there and off to the left, still out of view.  I also was getting low on water, but not wanting to filter again, so I just grabbed some unfiltered out of the stream in my one empty bottle.  If I really needed it, I could always filter it out of the bottle later.  I kept heading down, my knees doing good, but starting to get sore.  I neared the desert slopes again as I took in the view of the impressive granite cliffs making up the far side of Sawmill canyon down here.

Owens Valleys (and my car) Are Still A Long Ways Down!

Granite Cliffs Along The Trail

After a few small uphills traversing out of the canyon and back onto what I keep referring to as the desert portion of the climb, I could finally see the part of Owens Valley where I was parked.  It looked far away still, being 2-3 miles distant yet.  But, the end was in sight!  The day was growing late at this point and the Sun was beginning to set behind the mountains.  Long shadows of the Sierra were beginning to stretch across the Valley floor and the late afternoon light was giving the landscape before me a golden hue.  It was so peaceful.  The only sounds were my sandy footsteps and crickets chirping all along the trail.  The air was getting cool and the shade felt welcome.  Unfortunately, my knees were aching at this point, with every downhill step being quite painful.  I just zoned out as much as I could and enjoyed the views without trying to get in too much of a rush to get back.  Next thing I knew I was down on the flatter terrain, crossing the last stretch of desert back to my car, which made for a welcome sight. This part was quite a bit easier when you're on an actual trail too, unlike earlier in the morning!  I opened the hatch of my car and grabbed a nice, cold coconut water I had brought for this moment and sat down, feeling fully relaxed and spent.  I wasn't sure if one mountain I was looking at was Colosseum, or not, but it looked really far up there!  An adventurous and rewarding day!

Hiking Back Down Into Owens Valley
Colosseum Topo Map

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Time Symmetric Quantum Mechanics

Practically a century ago, Albert Einstein challenged the advent of Quantum Mechanics, perhaps most well-known through the phrase "God does not play dice with the Universe". Today I want to provide a short, cursory introduction to my favorite flavor of Quantum Mechanics, which provides an answer to why God might want to play dice with the Universe, as well as provide interesting insight into Free Will. Let's start by looking at what the two main branches of physics - classical mechanics and quantum mechanics - have to say about the nature of reality.

Classical Mechanics consists of the physics (electromagnetism, celestial mechanics, etc) which describe the macroscopic world. One key characteristic of the physical laws in this domain is that they are deterministic in nature. Given a set of initial conditions, one can predict future trajectories. In addition, objects are considered to have precise historical trajectories. The classic example is billiard balls. Given some initial force by the que stick in a given direction, one can determine exactly where those balls will end up. The billiard balls also had precise historical trajectories along the way, in that they followed a definite path at a definite speed across the pool table. So, what does this say about free will? If we are just large collections of molecules, which were set in motion at the beginning of the Universe (amongst many, many other molecules), we're all just like those billiard balls bouncing around. All our actions and thoughts are pre-determined by the initial conditions of the Universe, which leaves zero room for Free Will. Not looking promising so far, but let's move on to Quantum Theory. 

Quantum Mechanics (QM) is an altogether different story and a very exotic place. A simple example is a quantum particle which has only two spin states - spin-up and spin-down. (Spin is equivalent to a top spinning, or even the Earth rotating, but in QM spin states are quantized, or restricted, to certain values) Classically, one would expect the physics to be able to predict whether one would get spin-up or spin-down upon measurement. Instead, QM says the best one can do, even in principle, is predict the probability of what one will get upon measurement. For a physicist who is used to being able to precisely predict outcomes, this can be a bit disconcerting, which is partly why Einstein said "God does not play dice with the Universe". Perhaps even more troubling than the probabilistic nature of the predictions is that before measurement the particles are considered to be in a superposition of spin-up and spin-down, which would seem insane in the classical world. This applies even to the particles position, meaning they do not have well-defined historical trajectories. As unfounded and strange as this all sounds, it is well verified over the past century via experiment. So, what does this say about free will? QM still presents us with an undesirable picture for free will. Here, we have a set of potential outcomes where multiple actions, or thoughts, might be possible, but they are completely left up to chance. Whether you got the bacon crisp or avocado burger for lunch was not your choice, but rather left up to the "flip of a coin", perhaps in your neurons.

This probabilistic nature of Quantum Mechanics has been an area of great debate and intense study for the past century. Why would reality take on such a bizarre nature? Anyhow, this is how it would all seem ... so far. This is what the two big pictures in physics seem to say about the nature of reality at first glance. Let's take a look at Time Symmetric Quantum Mechanics (TSQM) and see how things change. 

Both areas of physics above assume that time is solely linear, flowing from past to present to future. If A happens before B and B happens before C, then what happens at A can effect B and C, and what happens at B can effect C. But, what happens at C will never effect what happens at B and A, and what happens at B will never effect what happens at A. This is cause and effect as we normally view things. TSQM mixes things up a bit, but in very subtle ways. Standard quantum mechanics has a wave function (the mathematical object that encodes the above mentioned probabilistic outcomes) that propagates forward in time (from A to B to C). TSQM consists of two wave functions - one propagates forward in time to the present and the other propagates from the future to the present. In other words, the outcome from a measurement obtained in the present (say, at B) depends upon information from the past (what happened at A) and the future (what will happen at C). (I would like to stress this is a very subtle type of retrocausality that in no way violates our everyday notions of cause and effect. I will get a bit more into this below). Modern experiments seem to suggest that what happens at C, can indeed effect measurement at B. See the reference links provided below.

Yakir Aharonov is one of the founders of TSQM and the insights this formulation contains.

"Aharonov accepted that a particle’s past does not contain enough information to fully predict its fate, but he wondered, if the information is not in its past, where could it be? After all, something must regulate the particle’s behavior. His answer—which seems inspired and insane in equal measure—was that we cannot perceive the information that controls the particle’s present behavior because it does not yet exist." (*)

“Nature is trying to tell us that there is a difference between two seemingly identical particles with different fates, but that difference can only be found in the future,” he says. If we’re willing to unshackle our minds from our preconceived view that time moves in only one direction, he argues, then it is entirely possible to set up a deterministic theory of quantum mechanics." (*)

In fact, Aharonov decided to mix things up and instead of making a claim like, "God does not play dice", he decided to ask a question. What advantage would there be for God to play dice? Is there something we are perhaps missing, that could make us realize there is a deeper reason why nature would at first appear probabilistic. As it turns out, TSQM suggests there is indeed a larger picture we are missing here. 

Consider the following three principles:

(1) Genuine Free Will 
(2) Cause and Effect 
(3) Retrocausality 

The first two we are well familiar with and, for the most, take for granted. The third is introduced by TSQM. At first glance, all three seem to be mutually exclusive to each other. Free will seems to be prohibited by classical and quantum theory, as discussed above. All your choices are determined, or effected by a preceding physical cause, meaning they can never be truly free (and QM alone didn't offer much help here). Retrocausality seems to contradict both. How can one have retrocausality without violating our normal notions of cause and effect? And, if there is a "destiny" out there waiting for us (let alone reaching back in time to effect the present), how can we have free will, or choose our own destiny? 

It turns out the "rolling of dice", or the probabilistic nature of Quantum Mechanics, is exactly what one needs to allow those three principles to live together! To set Einstein straight, this is why God plays dice! 


When taken in a larger context of a reality which allows a richer structure for spacetime, a seemingly bizarre and perhaps undesirable facet of reality suddenly becomes not only enlightening, but useful beyond our wildest imagination. Not only that, the probabilistic nature of the reality at the quantum scale seems to indirectly imply free will, even if at first glance it appears to be a stumbling block to it. In addition, for the three above-mentioned principles to exist harmoniously it would appear we need a richer view of time than our normal linear time, specifically one that allows for the type of retrocausal influence found within TSQM.

That these three can harmoniously exist within the framework of TSQM has been shown by physicists working in the field, although a comprehensive paper outlining the specifics is still waiting to be published. I'll try to quickly cover some of the basics of how this works and will dig into it more in a future blog post. Of course, this will be stated in terms of a scientist having free will, or free choice, over what he does and does not measure. 

In a subtle fashion, Mother Nature protects free will choice from "destiny", by making it so one can never be sure if what they observe in the present is really a wave function (i.e. "destiny") propagating back in time or just error in the measurement process, which is a ramification of the type of measurement used within TSQM - weak measurements. No matter what way they have come at this problem, they cannot get around it. It is only by examining all the measurements (past-present-future) after the fact, that one is able to decipher what really happened. In this way, free choice in the present, as to what measurements one can take, are protected from these subtle retrocausal influences. Further, it has been shown that it is precisely the probabilistic nature of QM that is needed in order for (1) free will, (2) cause and effect, and (3) a subtle retrocausality, to all exist harmoniously. 

As you may already know, I also explore parapsychology on this blog, so I can't help but point out that this is the kind of direction physics needs to head in to accommodate a phenomenon like psi. One type of psi experiment shows that folks seem to react (on an unconscious level) to certain stimuli 1-10 seconds before the stimuli actually happens. This is screaming for a richer view of reality, like the one presented in TSQM, which does allow information from the future to leak into the past. TSQM doesn't yet provide a mechanism for psi, but it does begin to open up a new window to reality that at least seems conducive to the existence of psi.

I would imagine this blog post has raised a number of questions, even if potentially providing a number of fascinating answers to some other questions. I hope to cover more in future posts I am planning to write about TSQM. Stay tuned! 


Sunday, June 1, 2014

New Photography Websites

Hello, I have to apologize that it's been so long since I put up a new blog post.  I've been dedicating most of my spare time to starting up a new photography hobby on the side.  I've started a couple new websites and have been taking several trips to feed my new obsession with the Milky Way.

If you like the photos below, you can see more here:



Feel free to like and share on facebook.  I'd be eternally grateful for any help on getting the word out.

I still managed to get two new blog posts about 98% done that I will be posting up soon.  One of them is about Time Symmetric Quantum Mechanics, which offers an answer to Einstein's question on why God would play dice with the Universe.  In the other I decided to tackle the meaning of life ... easy one, right?

Hope folks enjoy the photos in the meantime.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Hallucinogenic Mushrooms (Psilocybin) and Ramifications For The Nature of Consciousness

How's that for a provocative title?  As we'll see, it's not as crazy as it sounds! In fact, this post is about a semi-recent scientific study that was reported in Nature and Scientific American not all that long ago. 

My most recent blog post before this one discussed alternative models for the mind/brain problem, or the "hard problem of consciousness", which attempts to answer how conscious, subjective inner experience (i.e. qualia) can arise from unconscious matter.  These alternative models assume that consciousness is primary and does not arise from matter. Instead, they hold that the brain acts as an intermediary, or as a reducing valve, or filter, or in a fashion similar to a 2-way radio transceiver.  You can poke, and prod the circuitry in a radio as much as you want looking for the source of the transmission, but you're missing the point until you realize the radio is not the source.  The broadcast waves exist separate and independent from the radio.  It's best to realize these are all just meant to be crude analogies to help us start looking at the problem in a different perspective, or from a consciousness-first perspective.  So, we shouldn't take them too far.  Of course, all these analogies are opposed to the more popular matter-first perspective, which assumes that the brain produces consciousness, which would be the more natural assumption in the eyes of most.

So, the obvious question to ask would be, is there any evidence that trumps one perspective over the other?  At this point the answer is no.  However, lets look at what one might conclude based on each perspective.  If the brain acts more like a filter one would expect that if the filter is "shut off" we would have unrestrained cognition, or an enhancement in perception.  Near Death Experiences seem to confirm this, but the jury is still out.  On the other hand, we would expect the opposite if the brain produces consciousness.  Under this model, the more intense the brain activity, the more intense the conscious experience. No brain activity would mean no consciousness, which is the materialistic view of death.

Now, let's apply this to psilocybin - the chemical agent responsible for the intense high, or the intense conscious experience,  associated with hallucinogenic mushrooms.  A study was recently done in the UK which investigated the brain activity of folks under the influence of psilocybin.  Of course, the obvious expectation in line with the "brain produces consciousness" perspective is that these guys would have their brains lit up like Christmas Trees under fMRI scanners.  On the contrary, they found an overall reduction in brain activity, which is in correspondence of what one would expect if the brain acted as a filter, while the psilocybin "loosened" the filter a bit.

To be fair, mainstream neuroscience has come up with ideas in an attempt to explain findings like these.  One posits inhibitory brain processes in one area allowing excitatory process to grow unchecked elsewhere.  However, there was no increased activity found anywhere in the brain during the psilocybin studies.  Ultimately, the problem really comes down to the fact that all mainstream theories are unproven and fall short of their ultimate goal. As David Chalmers points out,  we have made essentially zero progress in the last 100 years on answering the question of how inner conscious experience can arise from matter.  Similarly, the "consciousness is primary" camp isn't exactly able to say how the brain acts as a filter, or receiver, nor can they definitively point "out there" to some field of consciousness.

However, even the Nature and Scientific American articles (referenced below) note the following.

"In his 1954 book The Doors of Perception, novelist Aldous Huxley, who famously experimented with psychedelics, suggested that the drugs produce a sensory deluge by opening a “reducing valve” in the brain that normally acts to limit our perceptions." *

"The new findings are consistent with this idea, and with the free-energy principle of brain function developed by Karl Friston of University College London that states that the brain works by constraining our perceptual experiences so that its predictions of the world are as accurate as possible." *

As hinted at in the quotes above, there could indeed be a survival advantage to the brain acting as a filter, thereby limiting conscious experience.  One does not need to be distracted by other ethereal realms, or angels, while being stalked by a saber tooth tiger!  The body evolves within and for efficient function in this world, not the next.

The consciousness-first perspective also jives up with the age old wisdom from cultures around the world.  I'm currently reading a book by Sri Aurobindo called "The Life Divine".  Aurobindo talks about the natural and ultimate state of all things, which is referred to as Sat-chid-ananda.  Sat means being, existence, the thing that truly is.  Chid means knowledge, or the free, all-creative self awareness of the Absolute.  Ananda means Bliss, or Beatitude, or refers to the self-delight which is the very nature of the transcendent and infinite existence.  This refers to the original state of unity, which I discuss in my Middle Way, Part II blog post.  The idea that Aurobindo puts forth is that this unity is reduced into multiplicity, at least partly, by ego consciousness.  One could then view the brain as the house of ego consciousness, or the tool which enables the ego experience, or which filters the state of unity down into multiplicity.

How will we eventually know which perspective on consciousness is the correct one?  I see this potentially playing out in several ways.  (1) A study like AWARE unambiguously shows that consciousness can exist independent of the brain.  (2) The accumulating evidence for psi becomes undeniable and perhaps backed up by a compelling theory.  (3) Psi and spiritual experiences become common enough amongst the population to where it will become natural to view consciousness as more than just the brain.  Or, (4) enough experiments like the one talked about here will make the consciousness-first perspective the more parsimonious viewpoint.  In reality, it will probably end up being an interplay of all these factors, plus ones I did not think of, that ultimately bring about an acceptance that consciousness is indeed primary.  As you can tell, I do feel fairly confident things will eventually trend in this direction, although I can't be sure.

Factor 4 is very similar to what may be currently happening within Quantum Mechanics.  There are two formulations of Quantum Mechanics I have been following: (1) the popular interpretation of QM where time is linear and unidirectional, which is our normal way of viewing time; (2) the time symmetric formulation (TSQM) which has a richer view on time, including a type of retro-causal influence.  Although they sure don't sound like they would be, these two theories turn out to be mathematically equivalent, i.e. they make the same predictions.  Therefore, no single experiment can trump one over the other, at least as far as we know.  Ten to fifteen years ago, TSQM was not given a high level of consideration.  Why evoke such an exotic concept of time when it provides no extra value?  Since then, however, a number of modern experiments have been done that are actually more simple and elegant to explain within the TSQM framework, while being convoluted within the standard QM framework.  Therefore, more physicists are beginning to find the TSQM framework compelling.  But, the jury is still out on which view truly represents physical reality.  More on this in a future blog post!  Perhaps more experiments could make the "consciousness is primary" model more compelling in a similar fashion.

I think all this shows, once again, that it is best for us to keep an open mind on the mind/brain problem, while waiting to see where the evidence takes us.

(*) Psychedelic chemical subdues brain activity, Nature

(**) Hallucinogenic Chemical Found in Magic Mushrooms Subdues Brain Activity, Scientific American

(***) Neural correlates of the psychedelic state as determined by fMRI studies with psilocybin, Original Paper Found In Proceedings of the National Academy of the Science, PNAS

(****) Disembodied Trippers by Bernardo Kastrup, for analysis similar, but superior, to my own.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Reality Sandwich Article - Does Consciousness Depend On The Brain?

The materialistic paradigm prevalent today has been fantastically successful in giving us our current level of understanding of the Universe, as well as in its contribution to our technological development.  Materialism basically holds that everything is physical, or that matter/energy is primary.  Another way of saying that is once all physical facts, or laws, are known, a full understanding of all aspects of reality would follow.  The current level of success behind this worldview that most of us have been inculcated with since birth, makes it very natural and obvious for us to assume that the brain produces consciousness.  Once all physical facts are accounted for a complete understanding of consciousness would follow, including the "why" behind your loves, passions, talents, etc.; the "why" behind everyday decisions like whether or not to get the fish taco or burger for lunch; even the "why" behind the inner feeling you get from the color red, or the smell of the ocean, as well as a fundamental explanation of any of the other veritably infinite variations on human experience that is possible.  We would have a scientific, mathematical model that could explain all this in physical terms, or in terms of physical laws/facts and, at least to some extent, offer predictions.  At least, that's the idea.

However, given that we have no understanding of how conscious, subjective inner experience (i.e. qualia) can arise from unconscious physical matter, it is just that - an unproven assumption.  Also, anyone with a historical viewpoint should take caution here.  One thing history, specifically the history of science, has taught us is that adamantly and stubbornly sticking to the existing paradigm only guarantees that you will eventually be wrong, despite whatever level of success you currently have.  It is also perhaps especially the case the longer you bump your head up against any one problem and fail to explain it under the existing paradigm.  Nothing qualifies better here than the problem of explaining consciousness.  As David Chalmers points out, we have made essentially zero progress in the last 100 years in our understanding of how subjective, inner experience can arise from physical matter.  He coined this "the hard problem" of consciousness.

I recently came across an enjoyable article that provided a good discussion on alternative ideas which hold consciousness as primary, rather than matter.  These ideas have been around for quite some time and given serious consideration by folks as far back as Hippocrates and as recently as William James.  With recent evidence for psi becoming stronger and the prevalence of Near Death Experiences growing, as well as other anomalous phenomenon, these ideas are regaining momentum today.  I'll included a few snippets below and a link to the article found at realitysandwich.com.  I hope you find it enjoyable.



"Lamont rightly contends that the fundamental issue is the relationship of personality to body, and divides the various positions into two broad categories: monism, which asserts that body and personality are bound together and cannot exist apart; and dualism, which asserts that body and personality are separable entities which may exist apart.  Lamont is convinced that the facts of modern science weigh heavily in favor of monism, and offers the following as scientific evidence that the mind depends upon the body:
  • in the evolutionary process the versatility of living forms increases with the development and complexity of their nervous systems
  • the mind matures and ages with the growth and decay of the body
  • alcohol, caffeine, and other drugs can affect the mind
  • destruction of brain tissue by disease, or by a severe blow to the head, can impair normal mental activity; the functions of seeing, hearing and speech are correlated with specific areas of the brain.
  • thinking and memory depend upon the cortex of the brain, and so 'it is difficult beyond measure to understand how they could survive after the dissolution, decay or destruction of the living brain in which they had their original locus.' "

"However, this conclusion is not based on the evidence alone.  There is an implicit, unstated assumption behind this argument, and it is often unconsciously employed.  The hidden premise behind this argument can be illustrated with the analogy of listening to music on a radio, smashing the radio's receiver, and thereby concluding that the radio was producing the music.  The implicit assumption made in all the arguments discussed above was that the relationship between brain activity and consciousness was always one of cause to effect, and never that of effect to cause.  But this assumption is not known to be true, and it is not the only conceivable one consistent with the observed facts mentioned earlier.  Just as consistent with the observed facts is the idea that the brain's function is that of an intermediary between mind and body -- or in other words, that the brain's function is that of a two-way receiver-transmitter -- sometimes from body to mind, and sometimes from mind to body."


" .... as for the objection that the transmission hypothesis is somehow fantastic, exactly the same objection can be raised against the production theory.  In the case of the production of steam by a kettle we have an easily understood model -- of alterations of molecular motion -- because the components that change are physically homogenous with each other.  But part of the reason the mind-body relationship has seemed so puzzling for so long is because mental and physical events seem so completely unlike each other.  This radical difference in their natures makes it exceedingly difficult to conceptualize the relationship between the two in terms of anything of which we are familiar.  It is partly for this reason that even though it has been more than a century since James delivered his lecture, in all that time neither psychology nor physiology has been able to produce any intelligible model of how biochemical processes could possibly be transformed into conscious experience."


William James

I think it is important to realize that transmission, or TV/radio, is meant to be just an analogy and a rather crude one at that.  But, it does help to point us in a direction where we can start viewing the mind/brain problem from a different perspective.  A perspective that as William James pointed out is just as valid as the standard "brain produces consciousness" perspective.  At this point one idea is no more supported by evidence than the other.

It has been suggested to think of consciousness more as a field found in Quantum Field Theory, with the usual non-local properties, however this too is just an analogy.  Psi evidence seems to suggest consciousness is capable of obtaining information in ways that the usual fundamental forces, as modeled within QFT, would be unable to provide with the typical conventional signals.  We also know that QFT is an incomplete theory and that the field perspective is probably not a fundamental picture of reality.

The perspective of holding consciousness as primary does not negate materialism, nor does it require us to throw out any existing physics.  On the contrary, it would only show that materialism is a limiting view, like all human views, but still entirely valid within its domain.  Likewise, we would only need to extend physics, similar to how Relativity is an extension of Newtonian theory, which is still also valid within its domain.

And, so, I still contend that is best for us to keep an open mind and not commit ourselves solely to the idea that "brain produces consciousness".

Reality Sandwich - Does Consciousness Depend On The Brain?