The Great White Clouds Today, and Cauliflowers.

It’s awfully bright today. The sun is too bright to look at, and when it falls on your eyes it hurts, but in an amazing happy way. The sunlight is glistening off bright white cumulus clouds, sparkling pure diamond white wherever it falls. You look up, there’s cumulus clouds everywhere like this great migrating herd through the clear cobalt sky, far, far till the horizon, and it seems like we are in this awesome photoshopped True HD movie.

Our maid observed from the balcony, looking at the clouds, that they look like cauliflower. Which is quite true of those billowy cumulus clouds.

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But this similarity deserves more than a passing remark. It has got a story. Some of you know this, and I think the others will like to hear it.

Cloud surfaces are fractal shapes. A short way of explaining that is to say that as you zoom in closer to the surface of a cloud, you will see that there are curves and bulges and irregularities at smaller and smaller levels, all the way down, emerging only as you go closer in, and always looking roughly similar to the large scale curves and billows that you can see from far. So you cannot really tell how much you are zoomed in at any point. So this general irregular, non-smooth, fractured nature, together with being similar at all zoom levels, is what qualifies a shape to be a fractal.

You guessed it, cauliflower are also fractals. So is broccoli, or a bunch of other natural produce.

To try and have a grasp on the degree of irregularity or fractured-ness of a fractal, there’s this number called the fractal dimension or the Hausdorff dimension that you can calculate easily for a fractal shape. That’s not a completely accurate definition I gave, but if you’re interested, look it up. Anyway, although you cannot tell exactly what a fractal shape looks like from this number, it is still a useful way to categorize them into sufficiently narrow classes. So you can expect fractal structures with close fractal dimensions to also be visually similar.

Clouds have a fractal dimension of around 2.35. Cauliflower, around 2.28. Very close. The first fact, that their shapes have this fractal nature, is why they look similar at all. The second fact, that their fractal dimensions are close, is why they are even more similar.

This is not an isolated factoid. There’s boundless more of these if you start looking. The world is like this. As Feynman said, “Nature uses only the longest threads to weave her patterns, so that each small piece of her fabric reveals the organization of the entire tapestry.” These amazing little wonders are all around us. They surround us and enclose us. This is a magical world. Ask, read, know, and feel awesome.

That’s today’s sky I photographed. It was much more awesome in real life.

Vulture

We were asked a simple question in class: ‘what causes tides?’

‘Class’ here means a mixture of fourth years of an integrated Masters in various sciences, and also some integrated PhD students. All of us were already the equivalent of bachelors.

We were blank. A little worse than blank, actually. Some tried to give answers containing words and stuff heard elsewhere, phrases that go with the situation. All of them knew that they did not have the answer. But answer we must, because it’s a race. Ignorance is idiocy, so we must spew words. This regrettably works often. Teachers frequently latch on to a keyword and continue a narrative themselves. This time our attempts were too poor even for that.

We had people in the room who have studied and discussed the intricacies of quantum mechanics, something I still cannot even begin to understand. And all we had to show were some half layman-ish ranting and whole ignorance to answer what causes tides.

I went into the library with a friend afterwards and tried to look it up online. Almost everywhere it was in terms oft-repeated and unilluminating, too scientific if pressed. As if this is a world that cannot be explained in an uncloaked language of simple motion, flow and weight. The question of tides is not a simple problem. Nothing really is a simple problem, only that it can be made so. But hey, when it starts to sound like a ‘scientific’ question, you need to sound ‘scientific’ in answering. What’s ‘scientific’? Why do we lose perspective? It’s just a question about this world we find ourselves in. At what point do you label it as ‘science’? And why can’t our science education teach us enough not to do that?

I wanted to say something else, but I guess writing has its way of carrying you away by creating a dialogue. But I’ll keep it short, and I’ll say that thing.

I saw a guy on YouTube who makes ‘Kinetic Wave Sculptures’ from wood and string. I had commented that he’s going to be a lot more help than most scientists with publications and degrees if humanity needs to rebuild after Armageddon. What I hadn’t realized was that that comment of mine would keep circling like a vulture above my head for a long time to come.

I, for one, wouldn’t be much help. I cannot make electricity or fire or light or mechanical solutions from the earth’s native resources as easily as you would expect a student of science to. Granted, science today is not about that. But I feel this personal shame studying Christoffel symbols if I can’t make a lightbulb glow from a turning fan.

We have been breeding useless scientists. We have been learning and preaching a science that is to be read and got used to, a science not to be practised and dirtied. A science not of motion, flow and weight, a science too elevated to connect to now and here. We have made people that spend their life studying racing motorbikes having never got on a bicycle.

This is because we labelled it. It is no longer a question about what we find ourselves in. Oh no, drop that audacity. It is not your question about your world any more. It is now a certain language, a certain typeface, a certain manual of style. It is now a citation, a peer-review and a GPA. All of that time the earth keeps spinning around in its void, and the motion, flow and weight dances around us, oblivious.

More fatal than blind submission to the wrong ideas is blind submission to what are clearly the right ideas. In either case you excuse yourself the tests for being wrong, but in the latter you have the illusion of being smart. Science is today’s witch-burning with a lab coat on. But we are breeding for just such batches of scientists.

I don’t have much more to say. I hope I change before I die; the shadows of those vultures keep getting darker around me.