All posts by Mike Zonta

The Pattern Inside the Pattern: Fractals, the Hidden Order Beneath Chaos, and the Story of the Refugee Who Revolutionized the Mathematics of Reality

By Maria Popova (


I have learned that the lines we draw to contain the infinite end up excluding more than they enfold.

I have learned that most things in life are better and more beautiful not linear but fractal. Love especially.

In a testament to Aldous Huxley’s astute insight that “all great truths are obvious truths but not all obvious truths are great truths,” the polymathic mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot (November 20, 1924–October 14, 2010) observed in his most famous and most quietly radical sentence that “clouds are not spheres, mountains are not cones, coastlines are not circles, and bark is not smooth, nor does lightning travel in a straight line.”

An obvious truth a child could tell you.

A great truth that would throw millennia of science into a fitful frenzy, sprung from a mind that dismantled the mansion of mathematics with an outsider’s tools.mandelbrotset.jpg?resize=680%2C510

The Mandelbrot set. (Illustration by Wolfgang Beyer.)

A self-described “nomad-by-choice” and “pioneer-by-necessity,” Mandelbrot believed that “the rare scholars who are nomads-by–choice are essential to the intellectual welfare of the settled disciplines.” He lived the proof with his discovery of a patterned order underlying a great many apparent irregularities in nature — a sweeping symmetry of nested self-similarities repeated recursively in what may at first read as chaos.

The revolutionary insight he arrived at while studying cotton prices in 1962 became the unremitting vector of revelation a lifetime long and aimed at infinity, beamed with equal power of illumination at everything from the geometry of broccoli florets and tree branches to the behavior of earthquakes and economic markets.FractalFlight_by_MariaPopova1.jpg?resize=680%2C780

Fractal Flight by Maria Popova. Available as a print.

Mandelbrot needed a word for his discovery — for this staggering new geometry with its dazzling shapes and its dazzling perturbations of the basic intuitions of the human mind, this elegy for order composed in the new mathematical language of chaos. One winter afternoon in his early fifties, leafing through his son’s Latin dictionary, he paused at fractus — the adjective from the verb frangere, “to break.” Having survived his own early life as a Jewish refugee in Europe by metabolizing languages — his native Lithuanian, then French when his family fled to France, then English as he began his life in science — he recognized immediately the word’s echoes in the English fracture and fraction, concepts that resonated with the nature of his jagged self-replicating geometries. Out of the dead language of classical science he sculpted the vocabulary of a new sensemaking model for the living world. The word fractal was born — binominal and bilingual, both adjective and noun, the same in English and in French — and all the universe was new.

In his essay for artist Katie Holten’s lovely anthology of art and science, About Trees (public library) — trees being perhaps the most tangible and most enchanting manifestation of fractals in nature — the poetic science historian James Gleick reflects on Mandelbrot’s titanic legacy:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngMandelbrot created nothing less than a new geometry, to stand side by side with Euclid’s — a geometry to mirror not the ideal forms of thought but the real complexity of nature. He was a mathematician who was never welcomed into the fraternity… and he pretended that was fine with him… In various incarnations he taught physiology and economics. He was a nonphysicist who won the Wolf Prize in physics. The labels didn’t matter. He turns out to have belonged to the select handful of twentieth century scientists who upended, as if by flipping a switch, the way we see the world we live in.

He was the one who let us appreciate chaos in all its glory, the noisy, the wayward and the freakish, form the very small to the very large. He gave the new field of study he invented a fittingly recondite name: “fractal geometry.”

It was Gleick who, in his epoch-making 1980 book Chaos: The Making of a New Science (public library), did for the notion of fractals what Rachel Carson did for the notion of ecology, embedding it in the popular imagination both as a scientific concept and as a sensemaking mechanism for reality, lush with material for metaphors that now live in every copse of culture.fractals_KochCurve.jpg?resize=680%2C509

Illustration from Chaos by James Gleick.

He writes of Mandelbrot’s breakthrough:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngOver and over again, the world displays a regular irregularity.


In the mind’s eye, a fractal is a way of seeing infinity.

Imagine a triangle, each of its sides one foot long. Now imagine a certain transformation — a particular, well-defined, easily repeated set of rules. Take the middle one-third of each side and attach a new triangle, identical in shape but one-third the size. The result is a star of David. Instead of three one-foot segments, the outline of this shape is now twelve four-inch segments. Instead of three points, there are six.

As you incline toward infinity and repeat this transformation over and over, adhering smaller and smaller triangles onto smaller and smaller sides, the shape becomes more and more detailed, looking more and more like the contour of an intricate perfect snowflake — but one with astonishing and mesmerizing features: a continuous contour that never intersects itself as its length increases with each recursive addition while the area bounded by it remains almost unchanged.wilsonbentley_snowflakes22.jpg

Plate from Wilson Bentley’s pioneering 19th-century photomicroscopy of snowflakes

If the curve were ironed out into a straight Euclidean line, its vector would reach toward the edge of the universe.

It thrills and troubles the mind to bend itself around this concept. Fractals disquieted even mathematicians. But they described a dizzying array of objects and phenomena in the real world, from clouds to capital to cauliflower.AgainstEuclid_by_MariaPopova.jpg?resize=680%2C764

Against Euclid by Maria Popova. Available as a print.

It took an unusual mind shaped by unusual experience — a common experience navigated by uncommon pathways — to arrive at this strange revolution. Gleick writes:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngBenoit Mandelbrot is best understood as a refugee. He was born in Warsaw in 1924 to a Lithuanian Jewish family, his father a clothing wholesaler, his mother a dentist. Alert to geopolitical reality, the family moved to Paris in 1936, drawn in part by the presence of Mandelbrot’s uncle, Szolem Mandelbrojt, a mathematician. When the war came, the family stayed just ahead of the Nazis once again, abandoning everything but a few suitcases and joining the stream of refugees who clogged the roads south from Paris. They finally reached the town of Tulle.

For a while Benoit went around as an apprentice toolmaker, dangerously conspicuous by his height and his educated background. It was a time of unforgettable sights and fears, yet later he recalled little personal hardship, remembering instead the times he was befriended in Tulle and elsewhere by schoolteachers, some of them distinguished scholars, themselves stranded by the war. In all, his schooling was irregular and discontinuous. He claimed never to have learned the alphabet or, more significantly, multiplication tables past the fives. Still, he had a gift.

When Paris was liberated, he took and passed the month-long oral and written admissions examination for École Normale and École Polytechnique, despite his lack of preparation. Among other elements, the test had a vestigial examination in drawing, and Mandelbrot discovered a latent facility for copying the Venus de Milo. On the mathematical sections of the test — exercises in formal algebra and integrated analysis — he managed to hide his lack of training with the help of his geometrical intuition. He had realized that, given an analytic problem, he could almost always think of it in terms of some shape in his mind. Given a shape, he could find ways of transforming it, altering its symmetries, making it more harmonious. Often his transformations led directly to a solution of the analogous problem. In physics and chemistry, where he could not apply geometry, he got poor grades. But in mathematics, questions he could never have answered using proper techniques melted away in the face of his manipulations of shapes.


Benoit Mandelbrot as a teenager. (Photograph courtesy of Aliette Mandelbrot.)

At the heart of Mandelbrot’s mathematical revolution, this exquisite plaything of the mind, is the idea of self-similarity — a fractal curve looks exactly the same as you zoom all the way out and all the way in, across all available scales of magnification. Gleick descirbes the nested recursion of self-similarity as “symmetry across scale,” “pattern inside of a pattern.” In his altogether splendid Chaos, he goes on to elucidate how the Mandelbrot set, considered by many the most complex object in mathematics, became “a kind of public emblem for chaos,” confounding our most elemental ideas about simplicity and complexity, and sculpting from that pliant confusion a whole new model of the world.

Couple with the story of the Hungarian teenager who bent Euclid and equipped Einstein with the building blocks of relativity, then revisit Gleick on time travel and his beautiful reading of and reflection on Elizabeth Bishop’s ode to the nature of knowledge.

Releasing the Hidden Splendour class on March 13 & 14, 2021


                                                                                Moderated by
    Thane of Hawaii
                             Alex Gambeau, H.W., m.

Dates: March 13th and 14th
Saturday & Sunday
Times: 9:00 AM (PST) Till Early Evening
Place:  Virtual Zoom MeetingRegister online

Class Fees:  First Time: $125.00; Reviewers: $90.00; 
             Life Members:  Contribution BasisPayment Plan: Can Be EstablishedOur ability to remember or bring back to conscious mind the memories in life so we can tell our story, or relive/reflect on our so-called past, is a powerful element of who and what we are. We say “so-called” because all that we have experienced before now, in this moment in time, has shaped us into who and what we think we are, how we behave and act, the way in which we interact with people and events in life. If we have emotions or patterns where we are stuck in an endless cycle of repetition, or negative emotional reactions, then that part of our past represents where and what we need to let go of or release. Releasing the Hidden Splendour is a tool to do just that. Your class moderator will be Alex Gambeu H.W., m.

Releasing the Hidden Splendour is also referred to as the Let Go and Give-For Technique. As we practice this tool, we let go of stuck emotions and give up our false beliefs that anyone “did” anything to us, for a new understanding of the events unfolding before us to release our inner goodness. We recognize that all is within our own mind or consciousness. We have the power to change our memories of the past and see a new picture/outlook of our life:   Please call me with any questions you might have at 360.696-9120.
 Class will start at 9:00 a.m. Pacific time till early evening, Saturday & Sunday March 13 & 14, 2021. Please join the Class via Zoom:
 Email: Phone: 360.696.9120More about About AlexAlex was introduced to the Prosperos in 1969, I was looking for some answer to life meaning and my purpose in the scheme of the Universe. Then I met a wonderful and spirited lady by the name of Ruth Backlund and her husband who own a health food store across the street from where I was working at the time and which I use to visited every day and started talking about the meaning of life and she mention if you need a an answer there is a group of people that might help you point you in the right direction to find your own purpose in life; and there having an open meeting at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood on that Sunday. The speaker was Norma Keller. From there on my life has changed to an immense degree, I must say I’m not the same person that I used to be and having fun and wandering along the way of changes that have taken place in my life, is a very magical and mystical trip.   I received my High Watch in July of 1992 and have just received my intern mentorship in July of 2020, have set up a study group in Find Yourself and Live and 4th Way and currently studying with Calvin Harris, H.W., M.Now I am very excited to deliver the monitor tape class of Releasing the Hidden Splendour by Thane of Hawaii for you and hope you will join me. Please call me with any questions and I am looking forward to having you in class with us. 
Copyright © 2021 The Prosperos, All rights reserved.

Our mailing address is:The Prosperos
P.O. Box 4969
Culver City, CA 90231

The Coronavirus Update

(image) WIRED Coronavirus Update Logo

03.01.21 (

Johnson & Johnson’s shot is approved, the House passes $1.9 trillion aid bill, and the EU plans for vaccine passports. Here’s what you should know:Headlines

Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine is approved in the US

The FDA and the CDC gave Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine the go-ahead this weekend. The first shipments are expected to go out this week. J&J told lawmakers last week that it would be ready to ship almost 4 million doses as soon as the shot was approved, and that it should have 20 million doses ready by the end of this month. Officials say that the vaccine, which only requires one shot and can be shipped at regular refrigerator temperatures, could be helpful for overcoming logistical hurdles and getting harder-to-reach populations inoculated.

House passes Biden’s $1.9 trillion aid package, paving its path to the Senate

Over the weekend, the House passed President Biden’s $1.9 trillion pandemic aid bill, largely along party lines. Now, it will go to the Senate as legislators race to get it approved before some federal unemployment aid expires on March 14. The plan includes provisions to extend unemployment benefits, send $1,400 stimulus check to many Americans, and provide more money to state and local governments.

Plans are underway for EU-wide vaccine passports

In a speech today, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said that later this month the EU will put forward a proposal for vaccine passports. These would provide proof that someone has gotten a Covid-19 vaccine, evidence of negative test results if they’re not yet vaccinated, or information about their recovery if they’ve had the disease. If enacted, this proposal would make it easier for Europeans to travel during the summer, and has received particular support from some countries that rely on tourism.

Refining my viewpoints

By Pam Rodolph, H.W., M.

March 1, 2021

Long ago, Thane said things will speed up so much that those who cannot change with it will go mad. Just watched a news program where they discussed that very thing. That things are changing too fast and people just aren’t ready for it. They are experiencing rage, blame, and the desire to rebel. Some are dropping down into violence. Just looking at one aspect of fast change has been extending human rights, particularly to minorities. It appears its not the fact of extending their rights, but at how fast it is happening. For me, this helps explain the alt right and also Antifa, for that matter. For me, its a different way of looking at them – instead of a terrorist group, they are, instead, a group of people who cannot come to grips with the speed of change of the world today. This isn’t anything you haven’t already thought about. But we are going to be dealing with this for a long time. 

My Cancer Journey 2/28

Ned Henry February 28, 2021 ·

So dealing with Cancer and maybe even beating it, is one thing. But this neuropathy is a whole new ballgame. Whether it is caused by the Vincristine in the chemo regimen or the chemo regimen just caused a flare up of the mild stenosis I know I have in my lumbar spine, doesn’t really matter. The effects are the same There are 2 distinct things going on with my feet and the left foot is much more pronounced than the right foot. The first is the coldness and numbness that I feel mostly on the bottom of the feet. This is caused by the nerves not firing so that I can feel normally. I can’t feel my toes to help me balance so I am unsure on my feet. The doctor on Friday told me there is no medical treatment to get those nerves to wake up. That doesn’t mean that there is nothing I can do but whatever course I take will take time. Acupuncture is something that I will try and the compound cream they gave me does seem to cause more pain in my foot but I am looking at that almost as a good sign that the nerves might be waking up. The second neurological issue is the pain and tightening that I feel mostly on top of the left foot. I do not feel this on the right foot. This is what keeps me up at night when I am trying to sleep. That issue is treated with the pharmacology treatment they are giving me with Lyrica. At least that is my understanding. That Lyrica will eventually cause these nerves that are firing too much to calm down. Now whether that will then also inhibit the nerves I want to wake up to get over the coldness and numbness, I will have to wait and see. The neuropathy is complicated. I will also get back to PT as soon as next week (hopefully) and see PT specialists for neuropathy. I spent most of yesterday and today just trying to move my toes on my left foot. I am able to get some very small movement out of the big toe but nothing out of the other toes. And my feet remain cold. So even though I might be beating the cancer, the prospect of not being able to walk normally again is a depressing one. I am not that old. 70. And a pretty young 70 since I have been active most of my life. I may not be able to ski again in this lifetime (we’ll see) but I want to travel again in Europe and I want to play golf again and be active and swim again and work out again. I am not ready to resign myself to being “permanently disabled.” And that is what the oncologist said about continuing with the Vincristine. I will know more about how the chemo is working without the Vincristine at the next PET CT scan next week. The Physical medicine doctor who specializes in cancer chemo side effects, said that we will work with it for a year. His words were that if in a year I can’t get better, then it will likely be a permanent disability – not encouraging but honest. But he also said we are only at the very beginning of that year and that some people are able to restore normal nerve function after this kind of neuropathy caused by Vincristine. So I will work the program and do my best to keep my mind from going to those dark and hopeless places where I end up on crutches for the time I have left on earth. I go there sometimes. I am weak sometimes and just want to feel sorry for myself. I have to remember how my cousin Johnny never seemed to go to those places as he wasted away with ALS. Most of the time, I know better. And I have my tools. I’ve learned lots of them over the course of my life. So I keep fighting. But the new battle may become My Neuropathy Journey if I get the all clear for cancer after 6 chemo treatments. Right now it’s both battles. So even though I have some positive indications about the cancer, I am hardly out of the woods yet. I do think I will have a long battle with the neuropathy. I have been through years and years of PT after my orthopedic surgeries — all 4 of them — and that work is grueling and requires daily work at home. I’m sure this new kind of PT will be the same. Lots of hard work ahead. The good news in all this is that I know that there are so many of you pulling for me to get through this so we can get together and do fun things again. And you know Covid makes this whole process so much more complicated since I can’t even get close to you these days. I will get my second vaccine shot next Tuesday and that will give me some protection but I will have to be careful about it probably for the rest of my life as a cancer survivor if I’m lucky enough to be counted in that group. Mt goal though, is to beat the cancer with the chemo and then to get normal function back in my feet and then to start to get strong again. Right now, I don’t feel very strong. I am fatigued from the chemo and the problems with getting enough sleep. So those are my thoughts as we end the month of February. It got up to 77 today here in Atlanta and I had a long visit on my deck with Pete, who brought me my now weekly gourmet meals. I must say, many people may lose weight during chemo but that is not the case with me. I am not losing weight but I am also not gaining weight. And I am eating very well with the meals people bring me whether from a restaurant or from their own kitchens. And the weather is getting warmer and after another month we will definitely be past any freezing temperatures overnight and should see some nice warm Spring days. Adn Atlanta explodes in color in springtime. The dogwoods and azaleas bloom all over town and in my yard and the wisteria that shades my deck in the summer comes out with pruple flowers for about 2 weeks. All that will happen in the next 6 weeks or so. And I want to be strong enough to go for some walks this spring and see the wildflowers— even short walks — on some of the nature trails around here. So I’ll sign off for now. Next week will be a busy one. Covid shot on Tuesday, PET CT on Wednesday and Chemo #4 on Friday.

It does look like I will lose my tutoring gig with refugee kids. They don’t have a new student for me to work with right now. I’m bummed about that. I thought Yunus are I were making good progress but he just didn’t want to continue and got himself kicked out of the program by not showing up for his sessions. I wonder if the IRC is doing English tutoring over zoom these days. I spent a few years teaching English with them to refugees but that ended with Covid. I think the volunteering helps me probably more than it helps the people I work with although I know it helps them too. I miss it. It’s a big hole in my calendar. Oh Iowa beat Ohio State today in basketball. Big game. Big win. Look out for the Hawkeyes. (My brother Jack went to Iowa so I pulled for them even though my niece Rosie went to Ohio State.) See ya next time.

LIVE DEBATE – The More We Evolve, The Less We Need God

IntelligenceSquared Debates Does God have a place in 21st century human affairs? For many, the answer is an unapologetic yes. Belief in a higher power, they argue, is the foundation of human consciousness and the soul of all social, political, and scientific progress. Further, some claim, humans are biologically predisposed to embrace religion and require faith to live moral lives. Others are far more skeptical. For them, adherence to faith and religious tradition serves only to fracture communities and prevent humanity from embracing a more enlightened, reasoned, and just social order. As we look to the future in uncertain times, should spirituality and religion play a central role in human evolution, innovation, and discovery? Or has God become obsolete? Cast YOUR vote on the motion “The More We Evolve, The Less We Need God” at​ For the Motion: Heather Berlin, Cognitive Neuroscientist Michael Shermer, Founder, The Skeptics Society & Best-Selling Author Against the Motion: Dr. Deepak Chopra, Integrative Medicine Advocate & Best-Selling Author Dr. Anoop Kumar, Emergency Physician & Author, “Michelangelo’s Medicine”

March 2021 Forecast

February 28, 2021 (

March 2021 is a relief after 2 turbulent first months of the year.

No more stelliums, no more retrogrades, no more T-squares.

Just trines, Mercury-Jupiter, and Venus-Neptune conjunctions. WOW!

With the entrance of the Sun and Venus in Aries, March is a much more elemental-balanced month. We desperately needed some fire, and March 2021 brings it to us.

Due to the triple Sun-Venus-Chiron conjunction, the central theme in March is healing and freedom from past hurts and burdens.

Let’s have a look at the most important transits of the month:

March 3rd, 2021 – Mars Enters Gemini

On March 3rd, 2021 Mars leaves Taurus and enters Gemini. Mars in Gemini is a transit to look forward to for two reasons:

  • Mars and Gemini share similar qualities: extroversion, movement, buzz, curiosity
  • Mars in Gemini applies trines (instead of squares) to the planets in Aquarius. Finally, there’s someone (Mars) to put that creative Aquarius energy back into good use!

Mars in Gemini is like a butterfly that moves around and gets things going. If you’ve been shy or quiet lately, this will change. Mars in Gemini loves to talk and express its point of view – and so will you!

March 4th, 2021 – Mercury Conjunct Jupiter

On March 4th, 2021 Mercury is conjunct Jupiter at 17° Aquarius. This is a highly auspicious transit we didn’t get the chance to benefit from much in February when Mercury was retrograde.

\Now Mercury is direct, so if you had some delays last month, Jupiter will finally give you its blessings. Mercury conjunct Jupiter will bring a much-needed sense of relief and optimism.

March 11th, 2021 – Sun Conjunct Neptune

On March 11th, 2021, the Sun is conjunct Neptune at 20° Pisces.

Sun is our identity. Neptune has a dissolving quality, so Sun conjunct Neptune is an opportunity to leave behind the old definition of who you are and meet the timeless, infinite Self that you really are.

With Sun conjunct Neptune the best advice is to let chaos do its work. It’s in the chaos – in this creative space of infinite possibilities – that eventually a new order will emerge.

March 13th, 2021 – New Moon In Pisces

On March 13th, 2021 we have a New Moon at 23° Pisces. The New Moon is conjunct Venus and Neptune so this is truly a fairytale New Moon. Sometimes dreams DO become a reality, and when the manifestation power of a New Moon meets Venus and Neptune, anything is possible!

March 13th, 2021 – Venus Conjunct Neptune

On March 13th, 2021 Venus is conjunct Neptune at 20° Pisces. Venus conjunct Neptune is the most romantic transit in astrology, and it’s just a few more years that we are lucky enough to have it in Neptune’s sign, Pisces.

No matter how difficult our lives may be at the moment, Venus conjunct Neptune is a gentle reminder that when we truly connect with our hearts, we can find beauty and magic everywhere.

March 15th, 2021 – Mercury Enters Pisces

On March 15th, Mercury leaves Aquarius and enters Pisces. In Pisces, Mercury is imaginative and fantasy-prone. Who cares about facts? When Mercury is in Pisces, facts are boring.

Perhaps that’s why a record number of artists have been born with Mercury in Pisces. Mercury in Pisces can pick up nuances and subtleties that no other Mercury can. This transit is great for creative projects of any kind.

March 20th, 2021 – Sun Enters Aries

Happy birthday to all Aries out there… and Happy New Year to everyone! On March 20th, 2020 Sun enters Aries which means that we have the official start of a new astrological year.

If 2021 had a birth chart, it would be cast for March 20th. Last year the March equinox chart had Sun conjunct Chiron, and a tense Capricorn stellium.

This astrological year, the Sun is closely conjunct Venus and has a much more optimistic vibe. Yes, there is still healing work to be done, but at least now we have an ally. Life doesn’t have to be that hard!

March 21st, 2021 – Venus Enters Aries

On March 21st, 2021 Venus enters Aries, hand in hand with the Sun, getting ready for a total rebirth of the heart.

There is a beauty and innocence to Venus in the first sign of the zodiac. Her heart is pure, and she instinctively knows what she wants.

March 23rd, 2021 – Mercury Square Mars

On March 23rd, Mercury (at 11° Pisces) is square Mars (at 11° Gemini).

Mercury-Mars squares have a reputation of being confrontational, however Gemini and Pisces are mutable, and rather compromising signs.

If anything, Mercury square Mars is about “let’s sort things out” rather than having arguments for the sake of having arguments.

March 26th, 2021 – Sun Conjunct Venus In Aries

On March 26th, 2021 the Sun is conjunct Venus at 5° Aries, which means we are right in the middle of our current Venus transit, which started in 2020 in Gemini. This is when Venus transforms into an evening star.

While Venus is still in close proximity to the Sun, as she begins to gain speed, she will eventually begin rising after sunset. Our approach to love becomes more mature, and we have a heightened understanding of what makes us and other people happy.

March 26th, 2021 – Mars Conjunct North Node

On March 26th, 2021 Mars is conjunct the North Node at 13° Gemini. Mars is the planet of action and self-assertion, and North Node is the “uncharted territory”. When Mars is conjunct North Node you want to “Go for it” even if it’s scary.

Since the conjunction is in Gemini, you want to keep a fresh perspective and pay attention to signs and details. With any North Node transit, it’s important to remember that you don’t have – yet – all the answers. Self-awareness is key.

March 28th, 2021 – Full Moon In Libra

On March 28th, we have a Full Moon at 8° Libra.

At the Full Moon, the Sun, Venus and Chiron are conjunct in Aries. Aries is the sign of “I am”. The Moon is in Libra, the sign of the “Other”. Sometimes we understand ourselves through others. And other times we can only understand others when we truly understand ourselves.

The process of putting oneself into other people’s shoes is never easy (that’s why relationships can be so complicated!) but that’s exactly what the Full Moon in Libra will help us with.

March 28th, 2021 – Venus Conjunct Chiron

On March 28th, 2021 Venus is conjunct Chiron at 8° Aries. Chiron transits often come with what health professionals call a “healing crisis”.

A healing crisis means that healing is initially preceded by a worsening of the symptoms. However, this temporary sickness is, in fact, a sign that the treatment is succeeding, even if it doesn’t feel that way.

Similarly, if we want to heal, we first have to bring our wounds out of the unconscious and into the conscious. Of course, once the wounds become conscious, they hurt. But that’s a necessary – and unavoidable – part of the healing process.

If we want to release the old wounds and traumas, we first have to acknowledge and accept them. Venus conjunct Chiron is our chance to heal the heart, by bringing to the surface old repressed feelings and emotions.

March 29th, 2021 – Sun Conjunct Chiron

On March 29th, 2021 Sun is conjunct Chiron at 8° Aries. Chiron has a special relationship with the Sun. In the Greek myth, Chiron was adopted by Apollo (the Greek name for the Sun) who taught him everything he knew. Chiron was abandoned by his parents, so it was the Sun who saved him.

The Sun represents the Self, our divine mission. Chiron represents our primal wound, the wound of being born and disconnected from the source. The wound of existence.

It is only by fully embracing ourselves, and our true purpose in life, that we can transcend the wound of existence and become whole.

March 30th, 2021 – Mercury Conjunct Neptune

On March 30th, 2021 Mercury is conjunct Neptune at 21° Pisces.

Many astrologers call Mercury-Neptune transits “confusing”, and for good reasons. Mercury is all about facts, and what we can see with our senses. Neptune is everything we cannot see – our feelings, intuition, and imagination.

But this doesn’t mean that Mercury and Neptune can’t work well together. In fact, when in conjunction, Mercury and Neptune are asked precisely that: to join forces and bring their best qualities to the table.

A good motto for Mercury conjunct Neptune is “Close your eyes and see”. Because sometimes the essential is indeed invisible to the eye.

PS: The AGE OF AQUARIUS Membership is now open for enrollment with a 14-day free trial!

This time – and this time only – we are happy to offer you a 14-day free trial.

If you wanted to join the Age Of Aquarius but were unsure about what you’ll get, you now have the chance to test the membership for 14 days.

This is a special Mercury conjunct Jupiter promotion we won’t be offering again, so make sure you take advantage of it before it expires (on March 1st).

Here is the link:


But is it science?

Theoretical physicists who say the multiverse exists set a dangerous precedent: science based on zero empirical evidence

Jim Baggott is an awardwinning British popular-science author, with more than 25 years’ experience writing on topics in science, philosophy and history. He is the author of Quantum Space: Loop Quantum Gravity and the Search for the Structure of Space, Time, and the Universe (2018) and Quantum Reality: The Quest for the Real Meaning of Quantum Mechanics – A Game of Theories (forthcoming, 2020) He lives in Reading, UK.

Published in association with
Oxford University Press
an Aeon Strategic PartnerListen here

Brought to you by Curio, an Aeon partner

Edited by Nigel Warburton

7 October 2019 (

There is no agreed criterion to distinguish science from pseudoscience, or just plain ordinary bullshit, opening the door to all manner of metaphysics masquerading as science. This is ‘post-empirical’ science, where truth no longer matters, and it is potentially very dangerous.

It’s not difficult to find recent examples. On 8 June 2019, the front cover of New Scientist magazine boldly declared that we’re ‘Inside the Mirrorverse’. Its editors bid us ‘Welcome to the parallel reality that’s hiding in plain sight’.

How you react to such headlines likely depends on your familiarity not only with aspects of modern physics, but also with the sensationalist tendencies of much of the popular-science media. Needless to say, the feature in question is rather less sensational than its headline suggests. It’s about the puzzling difference in the average time that subatomic particles called neutrons will freely undergo radioactive decay, depending on the experimental technique used to measure this – a story unlikely to pique the interests of more than a handful of New Scientist’s readers.

But, as so often happens these days, a few physicists have suggested that this is a problem with ‘a very natural explanation’. They claim that the neutrons are actually flitting between parallel universes. They admit that the chances of proving this are ‘low’, or even ‘zero’, but it doesn’t really matter. When it comes to grabbing attention, inviting that all-important click, or purchase, speculative metaphysics wins hands down.

It would be easy to lay the blame for this at the feet of science journalists or popular-science writers. But it seems that the scientists themselves (and their PR departments) are equally culpable. The New Scientist feature is concerned with the work of Leah Broussard at the US Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory. As far as I can tell, Broussard is engaged in some perfectly respectable experimental research on the properties of neutrons. But she betrays the nature of the game that’s being played when she says: ‘Theorists are very good at evading the traps that experimentalists leave for them. You’ll always find someone who’s happy to keep the idea alive.’

The ‘mirrorverse’ is just one more in a long line of so-called multiverse theories. These theories are based on the notion that our Universe is not unique, that there exists a large number of other universes that somehow sit alongside or parallel to our own. For example, in the so-called Many-Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, there are universes containing our parallel selves, identical to us but for their different experiences of quantum physics. These theories are attractive to some few theoretical physicists and philosophers, but there is absolutely no empirical evidence for them. And, as it seems we can’t ever experience these other universes, there will never be any evidence for them. As Broussard explained, these theories are sufficiently slippery to duck any kind of challenge that experimentalists might try to throw at them, and there’s always someone happy to keep the idea alive.

Is this really science? The answer depends on what you think society needs from science. In our post-truth age of casual lies, fake news and alternative facts, society is under extraordinary pressure from those pushing potentially dangerous antiscientific propaganda – ranging from climate-change denial to the anti-vaxxer movement to homeopathic medicines. I, for one, prefer a science that is rational and based on evidence, a science that is concerned with theories and empirical facts, a science that promotes the search for truth, no matter how transient or contingent. I prefer a science that does not readily admit theories so vague and slippery that empirical tests are either impossible or they mean absolutely nothing at all.

But isn’t science in any case about what is right and true? Surely nobody wants to be wrong and false? Except that it isn’t, and we seriously limit our ability to lift the veils of ignorance and change antiscientific beliefs if we persist in peddling this absurdly simplistic view of what science is. To understand why post-empirical science is even possible, we need first to dispel some of science’s greatest myths.

Despite appearances, science offers no certainty. Decades of progress in the philosophy of science have led us to accept that our prevailing scientific understanding is a limited-time offer, valid only until a new observation or experiment proves that it’s not. It turns out to be impossible even to formulate a scientific theory without metaphysics, without first assuming some things we can’t actually prove, such as the existence of an objective reality and the invisible entities we believe to exist in it. This is a bit awkward because it’s difficult, if not impossible, to gather empirical facts without first having some theoretical understanding of what we think we’re doing. Just try to make any sense of the raw data produced by CERN’s Large Hadron Collider without recourse to theories of particle physics, and see how far you get. Theories are underdetermined: choosing between competing theories that are equivalently accommodating of the facts can become a matter for personal judgment, or our choice of metaphysical preconceptions or prejudices, or even just the order in which things happened historically. This is one of the reasons why arguments still rage about the interpretation of a quantum theory that was formulated nearly 100 years ago.

Yet history tells us quite unequivocally that science works. It progresses. We know (and we think we understand) more about the nature of the physical world than we did yesterday; we know more than we did a decade, or a century, or a millennium ago. The progress of science is the reason we have smartphones, when the philosophers of Ancient Greece did not.

Successful theories are essential to this progress. When you use Google Maps on your smartphone, you draw on a network of satellites orbiting Earth at 20,000 kilometres, of which four are needed for the system to work, and between six and 10 are ‘visible’ from your location at any time. Each of these satellites carries a miniaturised atomic clock, and transmits precise timing and position data to your device that allow you to pinpoint your location and identify the fastest route to the pub. But without corrections based on Albert Einstein’s special and general theories of relativity, the Global Positioning System would accumulate clock errors, leading to position errors of up to 11 kilometres per day. Without these rather abstract and esoteric – but nevertheless highly successful – theories of physics, after a couple of days you’d have a hard time working out where on Earth you are.

In February 2019, the pioneers of GPS were awarded the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering. The judges remarked that ‘the public may not know what [GPS] stands for, but they know what it is’. This suggests a rather handy metaphor for science. We might scratch our heads about how it works, but we know that, when it’s done properly, it does.

And this brings us to one of the most challenging problems emerging from the philosophy of science: its strict definition. When is something ‘scientific’, and when is it not? In the light of the metaphor above, how do we know when science is being ‘done properly’? This is the demarcation problem, and it has an illustrious history. (For a more recent discussion, see Massimo Pigliucci’s essay ‘Must Science Be Testable?’ on Aeon).

The philosopher Karl Popper argued that what distinguishes a scientific theory from pseudoscience and pure metaphysics is the possibility that it might be falsified on exposure to empirical data. In other words, a theory is scientific if it has the potential to be proved wrong.

Astrology makes predictions, but these are intentionally general and wide open to interpretation. In 1963, Popper wrote: ‘It is a typical soothsayer’s trick to predict things so vaguely that the predictions can hardly fail: that they become irrefutable.’ We can find many ways to criticise the premises of homeopathy and dismiss this as pseudoscience, as it has little or no foundation in our current understanding of Western, evidence-based medicine. But, even if we take it at face value, we should admit that it fails all the tests: there is no evidence from clinical trials for the effectiveness of homeopathic remedies beyond a placebo effect. Those who, like Prince Charles, continue to argue for its efficacy are not doing science. They are doing wishful-thinking or, like a snake-oil salesman, they’re engaged in deliberate deception.

And, no matter how much we might want to believe that God designed all life on Earth, we must accept that intelligent design makes no testable predictions of its own. It is simply a conceptual alternative to evolution as the cause of life’s incredible complexity. Intelligent design cannot be falsified, just as nobody can prove the existence or non-existence of a philosopher’s metaphysical God, or a God of religion that ‘moves in mysterious ways’. Intelligent design is not science: as a theory, it is simply overwhelmed by its metaphysical content.

Instead of accepting that Newton’s laws were falsified, they tinkered with the auxiliary assumptions

But it was never going to be as simple as this. Applying a theory typically requires that – on paper, at least – we simplify the problem by imagining that the system we’re interested in can be isolated, such that we can ignore interference from the rest of the Universe. In his book Time Reborn (2013), the theoretical physicist Lee Smolin calls this ‘doing physics in a box’, and it involves making one or more so-called auxiliary assumptions. Consequently, when predictions are falsified by the empirical evidence, it’s never clear why. It might be that the theory is false, but it could simply be that one of the auxiliary assumptions is invalid. The evidence can’t tell us which.

There’s a nice lesson on all this from planetary astronomy. In 1781, Isaac Newton’s laws of motion and gravitation were used to predict the orbit of a newly discovered planet called Uranus. The prediction was wrong. But instead of accepting that Newton’s laws were thus falsified, the problem was solved simply by tinkering with the auxiliary assumptions, in this case by making the box a little bigger. John Adams and Urbain Le Verrier independently proposed that there was an as-yet-unobserved eighth planet in the solar system that was perturbing the orbit of Uranus. Neptune was duly discovered, in 1846, very close to the position predicted by Le Verrier. Far from falsifying Newton’s laws, the incorrect prediction and subsequent discovery of Neptune was greeted as a triumphant confirmation of them.

A few years later, Le Verrier tried the same logic on another astronomical problem. The planetary orbits are not exact ellipses. With each orbit, each planet’s point of closest approach to the Sun (called the perihelion) shifts slightly, or precesses, and this was thought to be caused by the cumulative gravitational pull of all the other planets in the solar system. For the planet Mercury, lying closest to the Sun, Newton’s laws predict a precession of 532 arc-seconds per century. But today the observed precession is rather more, about 575 arc-seconds per century, a difference of 43 arc-seconds. Though small, this difference accumulates and is equivalent to one ‘extra’ orbit every 3 million years or so.

Le Verrier ascribed this difference to the effects of yet another unobserved planet, lying closer to the Sun than Mercury, which became known as Vulcan. Astronomers searched for it in vain. In this case, Newton’s laws were indeed playing false. Einstein was delighted to discover that his general theory of relativity predicts a further ‘relativistic’ contribution of 43 arc-seconds per century, due to the curvature of spacetime around the Sun in the vicinity of Mercury.

This brief tale suggests that scientists will stop tinkering and agree to relegate a theory only when a demonstrably better one is available to replace it. We could conclude from this that theories are never falsified, as such. We know that Newton’s laws of motion are inferior to quantum mechanics in the microscopic realm of molecules, atoms and sub-atomic particles, and they break down when stuff of any size moves at or close to the speed of light. We know that Newton’s law of gravitation is inferior to Einstein’s general theory of relativity. And yet Newton’s laws remain perfectly satisfactory when applied to ‘everyday’ objects and situations, and physicists and engineers will happily make use of them. Curiously, although we know they’re ‘not true’, under certain practical circumstances they’re not false either. They’re ‘good enough’.

Such problems were judged by philosophers of science to be insurmountable, and Popper’s falsifiability criterion was abandoned (though, curiously, it still lives on in the minds of many practising scientists). But rather than seek an alternative, in 1983 the philosopher Larry Laudan declared that the demarcation problem is actually intractable, and must therefore be a pseudo-problem. He argued that the real distinction is between knowledge that is reliable or unreliable, irrespective of its provenance, and claimed that terms such as ‘pseudoscience’ and ‘unscientific’ have no real meaning.

But, for me at least, there has to be a difference between science and pseudoscience; between science and pure metaphysics, or just plain ordinary bullshit.

So, if we can’t make use of falsifiability, what do we use instead? I don’t think we have any real alternative but to adopt what I might call the empirical criterion. Demarcation is not some kind of binary yes-or-no, right-or-wrong, black-or-white judgment. We have to admit shades of grey. Popper himself was ready to accept this (the italics are mine):

the criterion of demarcation cannot be an absolutely sharp one but will itself have degrees. There will be well-testable theories, hardly testable theories, and non-testable theories. Those which are non-testable are of no interest to empirical scientists. They may be described as metaphysical.

Here, ‘testability’ implies only that a theory either makes contact, or holds some promise of making contact, with empirical evidence. It makes no presumptions about what we might do in light of the evidence. If the evidence verifies the theory, that’s great – we celebrate and start looking for another test. If the evidence fails to support the theory, then we might ponder for a while or tinker with the auxiliary assumptions. Either way, there’s a tension between the metaphysical content of the theory and the empirical data – a tension between the ideas and the facts – which prevents the metaphysics from getting completely out of hand. In this way, the metaphysics is tamed or ‘naturalised’, and we have something to work with. This is science.

Now, this might seem straightforward, but we’ve reached a rather interesting period in the history of foundational physics. Today, we’re blessed with two extraordinary theories. The first is quantum mechanics. This is the basis for the so-called standard model of particle physics that describes the workings of all known elementary particles. It is our best theory of matter. The second is Einstein’s general theory of relativity that explains how gravity works, and is the basis for the so-called standard model of Big Bang cosmology. It is our best theory of space, time and the Universe.

These two standard models explain everything we can see in the Universe. Yet they are deeply unsatisfying. The charismatic physicist Richard Feynman might have been a poor philosopher, but he wasn’t joking when he wrote in 1965: ‘I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.’ To work satisfactorily, Big Bang cosmology requires rather a lot of ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’, such that ‘what we can see’ accounts for an embarrassingly small 5 per cent of everything we believe there is in the Universe. If dark matter is really matter of some kind, then it’s simply missing from our best theory of matter. Changing one or more of the constants that govern the physics of our Universe by even the smallest amount would render the Universe inhospitable to life, or even physically impossible. We have no explanation for why the laws and constants of physics appear so ‘fine-tuned’ to evolve a Goldilocks universe that is just right.

These are very, very stubborn problems, and our best theories are full of explanatory holes. Bringing them together in a putative theory of everything has proved to be astonishingly difficult. Despite much effort over the past 50 years, there is no real consensus on how this might be done. And, to make matters considerably worse, we’ve run out of evidence. The theorists have been cunning and inventive. They have plenty of metaphysical ideas but there are no empirical signposts telling them which path they should take. They are ideas-rich, but data-poor.

They’re faced with a choice.

Do they pull up short, draw back and acknowledge that, without even the promise of empirical data to test their ideas, there is little or nothing more that can be done in the name of science? Do they throw their arms in the air in exasperation and accept that there might be things that science just can’t explain right now?

In the absence of facts, what constitutes ‘the best explanation’?

Or do they plough on regardless, publishing paper after paper filled with abstract mathematics that they can interpret to be explanatory of the physics, in the absence of data, for example in terms of a multiverse? Do they not only embrace the metaphysics but also allow their theories to be completely overwhelmed by it? Do they pretend that they can think their way to real physics, ignoring Einstein’s caution:

Time and again the passion for understanding has led to the illusion that man is able to comprehend the objective world rationally by pure thought without any empirical foundations – in short, by metaphysics.

I think you know the answer. But to argue that this is nevertheless still science requires some considerable mental gymnastics. Some just double-down. The theoretical physicist David Deutsch has declared that the multiverse is as real as the dinosaurs once were, and we should just ‘get over it’. Martin Rees, Britain’s Astronomer Royal, declares that the multiverse is not metaphysics but exciting science, which ‘may be true’, and on which he’d bet his dog’s life. Others seek to shift or undermine any notion of a demarcation criterion by wresting control of the narrative. One way to do this is to call out all the problems with Popper’s falsifiability that were acknowledged already many years ago by philosophers of science. Doing this allows them to make their own rules, while steering well clear of the real issue – the complete absence of even the promise of any tension between ideas and facts.

Sean Carroll, a vocal advocate for the Many-Worlds interpretation, prefers abduction, or what he calls ‘inference to the best explanation’, which leaves us with theories that are merely ‘parsimonious’, a matter of judgment, and ‘still might reasonably be true’. But whose judgment? In the absence of facts, what constitutes ‘the best explanation’?

Carroll seeks to dress his notion of inference in the cloth of respectability provided by something called Bayesian probability theory, happily overlooking its entirely subjective nature. It’s a short step from here to the theorist-turned-philosopher Richard Dawid’s efforts to justify the string theory programme in terms of ‘theoretically confirmed theory’ and ‘non-empirical theory assessment’. The ‘best explanation’ is then based on a choice between purely metaphysical constructs, without reference to empirical evidence, based on the application of a probability theory that can be readily engineered to suit personal prejudices.

Welcome to the oxymoron that is post-empirical science.

Still, what’s the big deal? So what if a handful of theoretical physicists want to indulge their inner metaphysician and publish papers that few outside their small academic circle will ever read? But look back to the beginning of this essay. Whether they intend it or not (and trust me, they intend it), this stuff has a habit of leaking into the public domain, dripping like acid into the very foundations of science. The publication of Carroll’s book Something Deeply Hidden, about the Many-Worlds interpretation, has been accompanied by an astonishing publicity blitz, including an essay on Aeon last month. A recent PBS News Hour piece led with the observation that: ‘The “Many-Worlds” theory in quantum mechanics suggests that, with every decision you make, a new universe springs into existence containing what amounts to a new version of you.’

Physics is supposed to be the hardest of the ‘hard sciences’. It sets standards by which we tend to judge all scientific endeavour. And people are watching.

The historian of science Helge Kragh has spent some considerable time studying the ‘higher speculations’ that have plagued foundational physics throughout its history. On the multiverse, in Higher Speculations (2011) he concluded (again, the italics are mine):

But, so it has been argued, intelligent design is hardly less testable than many multiverse theories. To dismiss intelligent design on the ground that it is untestable, and yet to accept the multiverse as an interesting scientific hypothesis, may come suspiciously close to applying double standards. As seen from the perspective of some creationists, and also by some non-creationists, their cause has received unintended methodological support from multiverse physics.

Unsurprisingly, the folks at the Discovery Institute, the Seattle-based think-tank for creationism and intelligent design, have been following the unfolding developments in theoretical physics with great interest. The Catholic evangelist Denyse O’Leary, writing for the Institute’s Evolution News blog in 2017, suggests that: ‘Advocates [of the multiverse] do not merely propose that we accept faulty evidence. They want us to abandon evidence as a key criterion for acceptance of their theory.’ The creationists are saying, with some justification: look, you accuse us of pseudoscience, but how is what you’re doing in the name of science any different? They seek to undermine the authority of science as the last word on the rational search for truth.

The philosophers Don Ross, James Ladyman and David Spurrett have argued that a demarcation criterion is a matter for institutions, not individuals. The institutions of science impose norms and standards and provide sense-checks and error filters that should in principle exclude claims to objective scientific knowledge derived from pure metaphysics. But, despite efforts by the cosmologist George Ellis and the astrophysicist Joe Silk to raise a red flag in 2014 and call on some of these institutions to ‘defend the integrity of physics’, nothing has changed. Ladyman seems resigned: ‘Widespread error about fundamentals among experts can and does happen,’ he tells me. He believes a correction will come in the long run, when a real scientific breakthrough is made. But what damage might be done while we wait for a breakthrough that might never come?

Perhaps we should begin with a small first step. Let’s acknowledge that theoretical physicists are perfectly entitled to believe, write and say whatever they want, within reason. But is it asking too much that they make their assertions with some honesty? Instead of ‘the multiverse exists’ and ‘it might be true’, is it really so difficult to say something like ‘the multiverse has some philosophical attractions, but it is highly speculative and controversial, and there is no evidence for it’? I appreciate that such caveats get lost or become mangled when transferred into a popular media obsessed with sensation, but this would then be a failure of journalism or science writing, rather than a failure of scientific integrity.

The abuses of Popper

A powerful cadre of scientists and economists sold Karl Popper’s ‘falsification’ idea to the world. They have much to answer for

Charlotte Sleigh is professor of science humanities and honorary professor in history at the University of Kent, UK. Her books include Literature and Science (2010), The Paper Zoo (2016) and Human (2020), co-authored with Amanda Rees. She lives in Canterbury, Kent.

Edited by Marina Benjamin

16 February 2021 (

If you ask philosophically minded researchers – in the Anglophone world at least – why it is that science works, they will almost always point to the philosopher Karl Popper (1902-94) for vindication. Science, they explain, doesn’t presume to provide the final answer to any question, but contents itself with trying to disprove things. Science, so the Popperians claim, is an implacable machine for destroying falsehoods.

Popper spent his youth in Vienna, among the liberal intelligentsia. His father was a lawyer and bibliophile, and an intimate of Sigmund Freud’s sister Rosa Graf. Popper’s early vocations draw him to music, cabinet making and educational philosophy, but he earned his doctorate in psychology from the University of Vienna in 1928. Realising that an academic post abroad offered escape from an increasingly antisemitic Austria (Popper’s grandparents were all Jewish, though he himself had been baptised into Lutheranism), he scrambled to write his first book. This was published as Logik der Forschung (1935), or The Logic of Scientific Discovery, and in it he put forward his method of falsification. The process of science, wrote Popper, was to conjecture a hypothesis and then attempt to falsify it. You must set up an experiment to try to prove your hypothesis wrong. If it is disproved, you must renounce it. Herein, said Popper, lies the great distinction between science and pseudoscience: the latter will try to protect itself from disproof by massaging its theory. But in science it is all or nothing, do or die.

Karl Popper, 1987. Photo by Süddeutsche Zeitung/Alamy

Popper warned scientists that, while experimental testing might get you nearer and nearer to the truth of your hypothesis via corroboration, you cannot and must not ever proclaim yourself correct. The logic of induction means that you’ll never collect the infinite mass of evidence necessary to be certain in all possible cases, so it’s better to consider the body of scientific knowledge not so much true as not-yet-disproved, or provisionally true. With his book in hand, Popper obtained a university position in New Zealand. From afar, he watched the fall of Austria to Nazism, and commenced work on a more political book, The Open Society and its Enemies (1945). Shortly after the war, he moved to the UK, where he remained for the rest of his life.

For all its appealing simplicity, falsification was quickly demolished by philosophers, who showed that it was an untenable way of looking at science. In any real experimental set-up, they pointed out, it’s impossible to isolate a single hypothetical element for disproof. Yet for decades, Popperianism has nonetheless remained popular among scientists themselves, in spite of its potentially harmful side-effects. Why should this be?

It was a group of biologists that gave Popper his first scientific hearing. They met as the Theoretical Biology Club in the 1930s and ’40s, at the University of Oxford, at house parties in Surrey, and latterly in London too. Popper visited them both before and after the war, as they wrestled with evolutionary theory and with establishing connections between their different biological specialisms. During the prewar period in particular, evolutionary biology was – depending on one’s outlook – either excitingly complex or confusingly jumbled. Neat theories of Mendelian evolution, where discrete characteristics were inherited on the toss of a chromosomal coin, competed to explain evolution with arcane statistical descriptions of genetic qualities, continuously graded across populations. Meanwhile the club’s leading light, Joseph Henry Woodger, hoped for a philosophically tight way of clarifying the notoriously flaky biological concept of ‘organicism’. Perhaps Popper’s clarifying rigour could help to sort it all out.

Photo supplied by the author

It is a striking fact that Popper’s most vocal fans came from the biological and field sciences: John Eccles, the Australian neurophysiologist; Clarence Palmer, the New Zealand meteorologist; Geoffrey Leeper, an Australian soil scientist. Even Hermann Bondi, an Austrian-British physical scientist, who operated at the speculative end of cosmology. In other words, it was the scientists whose work could least easily be potted in an attempted laboratory disproof – Popper’s method – who turned to Popper for vindication. This is odd. Presumably, they hoped for some epistemological heft for their work. To take a wider angle on the mystery, we might note the ‘physics envy’ sometimes attributed to 20th-century field scientists: the comparative lack of respect they experienced in both scientific and public circles. Popper seemed to offer salvation to this particular ill.

We don’t conclude we’ve disproved well-established laws of physics – rather, that our experiment was faulty

Among the eager philosophical scientists of the Theoretical Biology Club was a young man named Peter Medawar. Shortly after the Second World War, Medawar was drafted into a lab researching tissue transplantation, where he began a Nobel-winning career in the biological sciences. In his several books for popular audiences, and in his BBC Reith lectures of 1959, he consistently credited Popper for the success of science, becoming the most prominent Popperian of all. (In turn, Richard Dawkins credited Medawar as ‘chief spokesman for “The Scientist” in the modern world’, and has spoken positively of falsifiability.) In Medawar’s radio lectures, Popper’s trademark ‘commonsense’ philosophy was very much on display, and he explained with great clarity how even hypotheses about the genetic future of mankind could be tested experimentally along Popperian lines. In 1976, Medawar secured Popper his most prestigious recognition yet: a fellowship, rare among non-scientists, at the scientific Royal Society of London.

While all this was going on, three philosophers were pulling the rug away beneath the Popperians’ feet. They argued that, when an experiment fails to prove a hypothesis, any element of the physical or theoretical set-up could be to blame. Nor can any single disproof ever count against a theory, since we can always put in a good-faith auxiliary hypothesis to protect it: perhaps the lab mice weren’t sufficiently inbred to produce genetic consistency; perhaps the chemical reaction occurs only in the presence of a particular catalyst. Moreover, we have to protect some theories for the sake of getting on at all. Generally, we don’t conclude that we have disproved well-established laws of physics – rather, that our experiment was faulty. And yet the Popperians were undaunted. What did they see in him?

The historian Neil Calver argued in 2013 that members of the Royal Society were swayed less by Popper’s epistemological rules for research than by his philosophical chic. During the 1960s, they had been pummelled by the ‘two cultures’ debate that cast them as jumped-up technicians in comparison with the esteemed makers of high culture. Philosophy was a good cultural weapon with which to respond, since it demonstrated affinity with the arts. In particular, Popper’s account of what came before falsification in research was a good defence of the ‘cultural’ qualities of science. He described this stage as ‘conjecture’, an act of imagination. Medawar and others made great play of this scientific creativity in order to sustain cultural kudos for their field. Their Popper was not the Popper of falsification at all, but another Popper of wishful interpretation.

Although important to its participants, the two cultures debate was a storm in an institutional teacup. During the 1950s and ’60s, when Popper’s Logik der Forschung was available in English (The Logic of Scientific Discovery, 1959), clouds were gathering that threatened to flood out more than the chinaware of the Royal Society. In the public mind, the scientist was becoming a dangerous figure, the bogeyman responsible for the atomic bomb. Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove (1964), played in so memorably deranged a fashion by Peter Sellers, was the embodiment of the type. Strangelove struck at the heart of Popperian ideals, an unreconstructed Nazi operating at the military-industrial nerve-centre of the ‘free world’. As such, he reflected the real-life stories of Nazi war criminals imported by Operation Paperclip to the US to assist in the Cold War effort – a whitewashing project uncovered as early as 1951 by The Boston Globe. Against such a backdrop, the epistemic modesty of Popperian science was appealing indeed. Real scientists, in the Popperian mode, abjured all politics, all truths. They didn’t attempt to know the atom, still less to win wars. They merely attempted to disprove things. As Medawar put it in The Hope of Progress (1972):

The Wicked Scientist is not to be taken seriously … There are, however, plenty of wicked philosophers, wicked priests and wicked politicians.

Falsification was a recipe to proclaim personal modesty as well. In an interview in 2017 for the Oral History of British Science project, the crystallographer John Helliwell rejected, with some embarrassment, the notion that he might have been responsible for any revolutionary ‘paradigm shift’ in science (the coinage of Popper’s contemporary, Thomas Kuhn), when he pioneered a new method for visualising proteins and viruses, reaching instead for the humble method of falsification to describe his work.

It was, and remains, intellectually shortsighted to disconnect science and ethics in this way

One person’s modesty, however, can be another person’s denial of responsibility. A darker way of rendering the Popper vs Strangelove story is to say that falsification offers moral non-accountability to its adherents. A scientist can never be accused of supporting the wrong cause if their work is not about confirmation. Popper himself declared that science is an essentially theoretical business. Yet it was a naïve scientist working during the Cold War who didn’t realise the significance of their funding source and the implications of their research. Medawar, for example, knew full well that his own field of immunology sprang directly from attempts at skin grafting and transplantation on wounded victims of the Second World War. Moreover, he was perfectly aware of the high body-count involved in its experiments (including the use of guillotined criminals in France) – by no means unethical in all cases, but certainly far from theoretical.

Microscopic slides showing the development of grafted tissue, from an early paper by Peter Medawar. Courtesy the Wellcome Library

The Popperian get-out clause was deployed in that most controversial of 20th-century sciences, eugenics. Medawar didn’t hesitate to deploy the supposed moral non-accountability of science in defending eugenics, the topic that furnished the basis of his BBC lectures and much that followed. His argument was a subtle one, separating the science of eugenics into two types. ‘Positive’ eugenics – the creation of a perfect race – he characterised as bad because it was (a) Nazi, and (b) an unfalsifiable scientific goal – un-Popperian on two counts. This left the field clear for Medawar to lend his support to ‘negative’ eugenics, the deliberate prevention of conception by carriers of certain genetic conditions. This, claimed Medawar, was a strictly scientific (that is, Popperian) question, and didn’t touch upon matters of ethics. It was something of an invidious argument.

With Popperian impatience over so-called mere semantics, Medawar brushed away worries that the eugenic word ‘fitness’ implied a judgment about who was ‘fit’ or not to be a part of society. Rather, Medawar claimed, it was a mere tag of convenience for an idea that had perfect clarity among evolutionary biologists. Ordinary people shouldn’t worry themselves about its implications; the important thing was that scientists had it straight in their minds. Science merely provided the facts; it was for the potential parent to decide. On one level, this sounds innocuous – and Medawar was by no means a bad person. But it was, and remains, intellectually shortsighted to disconnect science and ethics in this way. To suppose a situation in which a potential parent will exercise a perfect and unencumbered liberal choice lends unwarranted impartiality to the scientific facts. In reality, economics or politics might force that parent’s hand. A more extreme example makes the case clear: if a scientist explains nuclear technology to a bellicose despot, but leaves the ethical choice of deployment to the despot, we wouldn’t say that the scientist had acted responsibly.

As he prepared his lectures on the ‘future of man’, Medawar speculated that biological ‘fitness’ was in fact best understood as an economic phenomenon:

[I]t is, in effect, a system of pricing the endowment of organisms in the currency of offspring: ie, in terms of net reproductive performance.

Making such a connection – between the hidden hand of nature and the apparently impartial decisions of the market – was a hot way to read Popper. His greatest fans outside the scientific community were, in fact, economists. At the London School of Economics, Popper was close to the neoliberal theorist Friedrich Hayek. He also taught the soon-to-be billionaire George Soros, who named his Open Society Foundations (formerly, the Open Society Institute) after Popper’s most famous book. Along with Hayek and several others, Popper founded the Mont Pelerin Society, promoting marketisation and privatisation around the world.

Popper’s appointment to a fellowship at the Royal Society marked the demise of a powerful strand of socialist leadership in British science that had begun in the 1930s with the cadre of talented and public-facing researchers (J D Bernal, J B S Haldane and others) whom the historian Gary Werskey in 1978 dubbed ‘the visible college’. Indeed, Popper had encountered many of them during his prewar visits to the Theoretical Biology Club. While they were sharpening their complex science against the edge of Popper’s philosophy, he might well have been whetting his anti-Marxist inclinations against their socialised vision of science – even, perhaps, their personalities. What Popper did in The Open Society was take the biologists’ politicising of science and attach it to antifascism. Science and politics were connected, but not in the way that the socialists claimed. Rather, science was a special example of the general liberal virtues that can be cultivated only in the absence of tyranny.

After the war, the commitment of visible-college scientists to nation-building saw them involved in many areas of governmental, educational and public life. The Popperians hated them. In The Road to Serfdom (1944), Hayek warned that they were ‘totalitarians in our midst’, plotting to create a Marxist regime. They should leave well alone, he argued, and accept that their lab work bore no connection to social questions. Hayek’s bracketing off of governance was no more plausible in science than it was in economics. The greatest myth of neoliberalism is that it represents a neutral political perspective – a commitment to non-meddling – when in fact it must be sustained through aggressive pro-business propaganda and the suppression of organised labour. So, while Soros’s social activism has done much good in the world, it has been funded through economic activity that depends upon a systematic repression of debate and of human beings for its success. Having a philosophical cover-story for this kind of neoliberalism, that likens it to (Popperian) science, does it no harm at all.

In thinking and writing about Popper, one becomes very conscious of antisemitism. Popper fled Nazi hatred in 1930s Austria; today, Soros is the victim of antisemitic slurs that would be ridiculous were it not for the history and the real threat of continued violence in which they are rooted. We do well to remember the biographical reasons that Popper had for advancing an open society, and for trying to redeem science from the sins committed by Nazi researchers. The sly elision of fascist and socialist science as the opponent to Popperianism – sometimes deliberate, sometimes unconscious – is a move for which it’s more difficult to find sympathy.

It doesn’t take much time online to find examples of Popperianism wielded by climate change deniers

Science is profoundly altered when considered analogous to the open market. The notion that scientific theories vie with one another in open competition overlooks the fact that research ambitions and funding choices are shaped by both big-p and small-p politics. There is a reason why more scientific progress has been made in drugs for the treatment of diseases of wealth than of poverty. Moreover, career success in science – which shapes future research agendas when a person becomes a leader in their field – is a matter profoundly inflected by gender, race, class and dis/ability.

Scientists refused Popper’s distinction between science and ethics in Science for the People (this issue from 1974). Courtesy the Wellcome Library

Some unscrupulous researchers even used a Popperian frame to become, precisely, the ‘wicked scientists’ whose existence Medawar denied. As the historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway describe in Merchants of Doubt (2010), scientists in the US and the UK were co-opted as lobbyists for tobacco companies during the late-20th century to cast doubt upon research that revealed a link between smoking and cancer. No such link could be proved, in Popperian terms; and that room for doubt was ruthlessly exploited by the scientists’ paymasters. Many of the same scientists went on to work for fossil fuel lobbyists, casting doubt on the science of anthropogenic climate change. It doesn’t take much time on a search engine to find examples of Popperianism wielded by deniers. In a YouTube video from 2019, the Clear Energy Alliance (which DeSmog Blog lists as funded by oil interests) called upon the ‘legendary scientific philosopher Karl Popper’. The group’s central claim is that: ‘In order to know if a theory could be true, there must be a way to prove it to be false. Unfortunately, many climate change scientists, the media and activists are ignoring this cornerstone of science.’ At the same time, academics at recognised universities write scholarly sounding papers for the libertarian, neoliberal and sceptic Cato Institute arguing that ‘Popper’s evolutionary epistemology captures … the essence of science, but the conduct of climate science today is a far cry from [it]’. Such writers typically hail from the fields of economics and policy rather than science; untroubled by the critique of scientists, Popper’s contested and outdated account of science suits them perfectly.

While Hayek et al held the smoking gun of Popperian mischief, there were well-intentioned reasons for sticking with a simple model of sceptical science. Not least that it dovetailed with the meritocratic narrative of postwar science: the notion that science, more than any other discipline, suited the upwardly mobile working and middle classes. It takes a particular kind of education and upbringing to see the aesthetics of completion, or grasp the mathematics of proof, but any smart kid can poke holes in something. If that’s what science is, then it’s open to anyone, no matter their social class. This was the meritocratic dream of educationalists in the 1950s: Britain would, in mutually supportive vein, be culturally modern and intellectually scientific.

That dream backfired. The notion that science is all about falsification has done incalculable damage not just to science but to human wellbeing. It has normalised distrust as the default condition for knowledge-making, while setting an unreachable and unrealistic standard for the scientific enterprise. Climate sceptics demand precise predictions of an impossible kind, yet seize upon a single anomalous piece of data to claim to have disproved the entire edifice of combined research; anti-vaxxers exploit the impossibility of any ultimate proof of safety to fuel their destructive activism. In this sense, Popperianism has a great deal to answer for.


When you understand the difference between longing and desire it will change your life.

Opening ourselves to longing, activates powerful forces that will move our lives and life itself towards higher possibilities of love and truth. Longing arises from a dimension that is deeper than your individual sense of self – deeper than your soul. It arises from the unknown and comes through us into this world.
Longing comes from the divine forces of love and evolution, itself, bringing new potentials into existence. Something greater waits for us, needs us to awaken and surrender to its power, love and creativity. If you pay close attention, when you begin to feel the longing you can sense that its a two-way affair. Something is longing for you and through you, and that is where the immense power (and beauty) lie.Generally, we focus on our human desires. People ask us what we want and need. We are told to feel our desires. Desire, however, comes from our limited sense of identity, from our survival and egoic patterns. Of course, it’s important to understand ourselves and care for our needs, but there is something so much greater that can move everything and create possibilities you can’t imagine.In life, our desires give us a kind of ‘menu’ to order from. Longing puts things on the ‘menu’ that don’t exist inside our current reality. It reveals potentials that are waiting for us to open into, potentials that don’t fit into the life we have, but transform us and attract what we need to live from our true purpose in being here. Longing can be counted on to shatter the compromise in our lives and activate our true potentials.Longing has an interesting quality of making us restless and hungry for something we can’t explain.In the practice you are about to do, focus on listening to the edges of your experience. That’s where longing is trying to lure you and bring you beyond where you are. In this practice, I suggest that you let yourself feel, long for, what you truly want, for love, life and humanity, even if it seems impractical or unlikely.What if it was possible for humanity to move beyond the divisiveness, narrow mindedness, selfishness, deceit, fear and laziness that we assume is human nature? What if it was possible for humanity to exist inside a shared consciousness where love, kindness and compassion was normal? What if our human ambition was collectively devoted to what I call ‘divinizing’ our world or making it more good, true and beautiful?
Can you sense the deeper evolutionary longing within you, that is tired of power structures, insensitivity, competitiveness and other elements that we assume we have to live inside of with acceptance?You may discover a smoldering passion and a fire within you that wants to risk everything for something greater that honors all of who you are and all of what you can give. image
Real revolutions begin with longing. I have a dear friend whose Aunt Betty was Betty Friedan who wrote the Feminine Mystique in 1963, a book that ignited the modern day women’s movement. Betty felt a restlessness and longing for something more than the traditional roles available to her as a woman. She was not alone in experiencing the stirrings of discontent but fortunately she allowed the longing to emerge and burst forth into the light of day. She wrote the book and welcomed others to awaken similarly. The longing grew in everyone and began to create a new reality that is still evolving today.Now we need to welcome the longing for how humanity can evolve, how we can actualize a higher order of human relatedness.There’s a whole new dimension of love and consciousness that will shape our world that comes from unity, intimacy and interconnectedness, if we can embrace it.Longing leads us to the unknown, to something greater that is reaching towards us. Longing allows us to ‘grope’ our way forward and to be a vehicle for evolution.Let yourself long for how love could be in life and in our world.Go beyond acceptance and sense into the realm of possibility.Evolution has taken us from light to matter to life on earth, from being single celled creatures to Shakespeare and space travel.Don’t you think we can actually evolve beyond our competitiveness, selfishness and fear?Let yourself long for the kind of world we would actually feel at home in?
What’s possible between us?
What’s possible for you?

Patricia Albere ( February 27, 2021