Neuroplasticity as Opposed to Materialist Reductionism; Quantum Theory and Jazz Improvisation; and John Beasley’s MONK’estra at the 60th Monterey Jazz Festival

In preparation for this blog post, I have been taking notes on books by three very different authors, but each book leads to a compatible hypothesis (or conclusion) on their part. The authors are Jeffrey M. Schwartz (The Mind & The Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force), Henry P. Stapp (Mindful Universe: Quantum Mechanics and the Participating Observer), and Dean Radin (The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena).

I concluded my last blog post by saying that, when I wrote again, I would like to address “the ongoing debate (or ‘civil war’) in the world of science between (1) materialist reductionism (‘The idea that all phenomena can be explained by the interaction and movement of material particles’) and (2) neuroplasticity (‘rewiring’ of the brain), volition, free will, bidirectional ‘causality relating brain and mind’: two opposite sides in that ‘war’ that young Isaac Newton set in motion when he got conked on the head beneath an apple tree (although even that ‘fixed’ or too perfect setting has been called into question) and Newton discovered the law of gravity, regarding our world as a windup clock–empiricism as the only means by which it can be understood, or ‘measured.’

Here are visionary artist William Blake’s painting of Sir Isaac Newton, “measuring” (In a letter, Blake wrote, “Pray God us keep/From Single vision & Newton’s Sleep”; and in a poem: “Newton’s Particles of light/Are Sands upon the Red sea’s shore”; also: “Can wisdom be put in a silver rod?”)—the second print is Blake’s “Ancient of Days,” also with compass or calipers in hand, instruments “sinister” to the poet, both literally and figuratively. (Photo credits: www.wikiart.org; wikipedia)

William Blake's Newton

William Blake's Ancient of Days

I concluded that post with: “‘Newton in some sense largely eliminated the divine from the ongoing workings of the universe,’ states Jeffrey M. Schwartz in his excellent book The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force (which, along with Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary’s The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul is of considerable interest, along with [Stapp’s book]. I will save an analogy, or congruence I find with jazz for the next post—so please ‘stay tuned,’ for I hope you will find the comparison, and an account of John Beasley’s amazing interpretation and arrangements of Thelonious Monk’s work engaging, and interesting.”

So here we are, now, with some thoughts on (and quotes from) three different views of the on-going Brain/Mind controversy (classical Newtonian physics versus neuroplasticity). Jeffrey Schwartz is a research professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine; Henry P. Stapp “has spent his entire career working in frontier areas of theoretical physics”—pursuing “extensive work pertaining to the influence of our conscious thoughts on physical processes occurring in our brains”; and Dean Radin is a parapsychology researcher, Senior Scientist at the  Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS), in Petaluma, California, and former President of the Parapsychological Association.

All three authors have focused their attention on the issue of “mind-brain” interaction, on how contemporary basic physical theory differs from classic physics, on the role of consciousness in human agents when they encounter the structure of empirical phenomena—and all three would seem to favor philosopher David J. Chalmers, when he writes about “the hard problem” of consciousness (“There is nothing that we know more intimately than conscious experience, but there is nothing that is harder to explain.”), and in his book The Character of Consciousness, Chalmers devotes 568 pages to an attempt to explain this all-too-human condition.

In cruel contrast, ethologist, evolutionary biologist and author (The Selfish Gene) Richard Dawkins attempts to resolve the issue in four succinct sentences: “We are machines built by DNA whose purpose is to make more copies of the same DNA. That is exactly what we are here for. We are machines for propagating DNA, and the propagation of DNA is a self-sustaining process. It is every living object’s sole reason for living.”

Schwartz, Stapp, and Radin–whatever their differences–spend considerable space (and words) in their books attempting to show (and support with examples) the obsolescence of mainstream (“only the physical is real”) materialism, classic Newtonian physics, Hard Science, reductionism (as quoted before: “the idea that all phenomena can be explained by the interaction and movements of material particles”)—and openly (and courageously) espouse the merits of neuroplasticity: the “ability of neurons to forge new connections, to blaze new paths through the cortex, even to assume new roles … rewiring the brain.”—or, God forbid, Free Will!

Schwartz came to his position, or vision, by way of innovative therapy sessions he worked out for patients suffering from (or locked into) obsessive/compulsive behavior—alongside an extra-curricular interest in Buddhist “mindfulness.” Schwartz quotes the following from “one Buddhist scholar”: “You’re walking in the woods and your attention is drawn to a beautiful tree or a flower. The usual human reaction is to set the mind working, ‘What a beautiful tree. I wonder how long it’s been here. I wonder how often people notice it. I should really write a poem’ [or worse: ‘I should probably cut it down for firewood!’] … The way of mindfulness would be just to see the tree … as you gaze at the tree there is nothing between you and it.” Schwartz adds, “There is full awareness without running commentary. You are just watching, observing all facts, both inner and outer, very closely.” You are just living the tree?

Here are David J. Chalmers’ The Character of Consciousness; Jeffrey M. Schwartz’s The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force; and a photo of Schwartz himself. (Photo credit: Goodreads)

David Chalmers The CHaracter of Consciousness   Jeffery Schwartz The Mind and the Brain

Jeffrey Schwartz

Here are some other observations by Jeffrey Schwartz I appreciated: “Individuals choose what they will attend to [two of his favorite words are “awareness” and “attention” (“intended action!”)]… Science ceded the soul and the conscious mind to religion and kept the material world to itself … By choosing whether and/or how to focus on the various possible states, the mind influences which one of them comes into being … The triumphant idea can then make the body move, and through associated neuroplastic changes, alter the brain circuitry … Radical attempts to view the world as a merely material domain, devoid of mind as an active force, neglect the very powers that define humankind … The science emerging with the new century tells us that we are not the children of matter alone, nor its slaves.”

He also praises (for its far ahead of its time insight), the words of William James: “Nature in her unfathomable designs has mixed us of clay and fire, of brain and mind, that the two things hang indubitably together and determine each other’s being.”

Jeffrey Schwartz is also fond of quoting his friend (and eventual collaborator) Henry Stapp: “the replacement of the ideas of classical physics by the ideas of quantum physics completely changes the complexion of the mind-brain dichotomy, of the connection between mind and brain … In quantum theory, experience is an essential reality, and matter is viewed as a response then of the primary reality, which is experience.”

Henry P. Stapp’s prose style is, overall, more technical, demanding, and, although of considerable interest, perhaps less accessible at times (to someone like me, a definite “layman”), but he is dealing with the subject about which the renowned physicist Richard Feynman confessed (in his series of The Character of Physical Law lectures), “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.” Stapp would hope to convince you otherwise, commencing the Preface to Mindful Universe: Quantum Mechanics and the Participating Observer with these words: “The new theory departs from the old one in many important ways, but none is more significant in the realm of human affairs than the role it assigns to your conscious choices.”

Stapp cites a “tremendous burgeoning of interest in the problem of consciousness” now in progress, and quotes from an article by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio: “At the start of the new millennium, it is apparent that one question towers above all others in the life sciences: How does the set of processes we call mind emerge from the activity of the organ we call brain?” Damasio answers his own question: “I contend that the biological processes […] now presumed to correspond to mind in fact are mind processes and will be seen to be so when understood in sufficient detail”—and he hints that biological processes “understood in sufficient detail” are really “quantum understanding.”

Enter Henry P. Stapp with his “deep interest in the quantum measurement problem.” His own book is loaded with vital information on (and understanding of) every phase of quantum theory from the fundamental role of the observer; the wave/particle phenomena; placebos; the locality/nonlocality issue;  Einstein’s “Spooky Action at a Distance”; the Quantum Zero effect—a host of aspects of the two co-existing parallel mental realities; and even an extensive analysis of Alfred North Whitehead’s thoughts, one of the first mathematician/philosophers to comprehend quantum mechanics and incorporate its theories into his organic philosophy and Process Ontology.

Here is a photo of Henry P. Stapp, and the cover of his book, The Mindful Universe. (Photo credit: Alchetron.com)

Henry Stapp (2)   Henry Stapp The Mindful Universe

I won’t try to do justice to all I found of interest and value in those sections (Much!), but a chapter and material that followed is devoted to “The Impact of Quantum Mechanics on Human Values,” and Stapp states, “The quantum concept of man, being based on objective science equally available to all … has the potential to undergird a universal system of basic values suitable to all people, without regard to the accidents of their origins”—and would thus provide “material benefits,” in every area from ethics to medicine.

Among the advantages, Stapp lists: “consciously experienced intentional choices,” “a foundation for understanding the co-evolution of mind and brain,” “free will of the kind needed to undergird ethical theory,” and improved “self-image … with consciousness an active component of a deeply interconnected world process that is responsive to value-based human judgments … Behavior, insofar as it concerns ethics, is guided by conscious reflection and evaluation … one’s weighing of the welfare of the whole.”

If “attention” (“intended action”) was a favorite, a key word for Schwartz, “interconnection” is the choice of Henry Stapp. He has a Utopian vision. EVERYTHING is interconnected! Without being fully aware of it, we are ALL (people and particles alike!) intimately interconnected—always! We are truly the molecular, and otherwise, music of the spheres, uniting medieval cosmology and NOW. His vision of and for the future is not “systematic,” and the structure of his book is loose; the book—although divided up into “chapters,” seems to float, from section to section, agreeably, as inclusive as quantum theory itself, with ease and unpredictability (Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle” at play), enjoying its own playful quantum “jumps.” Another frequently employed word is “dynamics”—and nothing is preserved in stone, set forever, or lasting (as Newton’s classic physics did) for three centuries; all is in flux (I once wrote a poem that began: “I flux, you flux, everybody flux flux.”).

Stapp states: “According to the new conception, the physically described world is built not out of bits of matter, as matter was understood in the nineteenth century, but out of objective tendencies—potentialities—for certain discrete, whole actual events to occur … This coordination of the aspects of the theory that are described in physical/mathematical terms with aspects that are described in psychological [subjective] terms is what makes the theory  practically useful. Some empirical predictions have been verified to the incredible accuracy of one part in a hundred million.”  

Here are photos of: quantum mechanics equations and the wave/particle double slot experiment. Photo credits: www.thoughtco.com; http://www.liquidgravity.nz)

Quantum mechanics equations

Wave particle experiment

“Mindfulness” (attention, interconnectedness) would seem to be the order of the day.

Although Dean Radin shares conclusions and convictions with Schwartz and Stapp, he comes at the mind-brain dilemma from a slightly different angle or perspective: defending his field of specialty (parapsychology) from constant attack or criticism on the part of hard science, which regards the study of the mental phenomena he has devoted his life to as inexplicable—or an illusion.

His book–The Conscious Universe: the Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomenais systematic: a carefully sequenced argument, or act of persuasion, from the Preface (“When we set out to prove the boundaries of consciousness and reality … it is essential to cultivate tolerance for the unexpected”) to the book’s “wrap up” on page 339: “Future generations will undoubtedly look back upon the twentieth century with a certain poignancy. Our progeny will shake their heads with disbelief over the arrogance we displayed in our misunderstanding of nature. It took three hundred years of hard-won scientific advances merely to verify the existence of something that people had been experiencing for millennia.”

Radin is devoted to noetic (from the Greek word “noesis” or “noetikos”: intuition or inner wisdom, direct knowing, subjective understanding) science: a branch that employs rigorous scientific methods with multidisciplinary scholarship in the study of what philosopher William James (far-seeing in 1902) referred to as “states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect.” Using this method Radin recognized (discussed under the heading “Belief Becomes Biology” in his book) that an external suggestion can become “an internal expectation” that can “manifest in the physical body”–the implication being that the body’s “hard physical reality can be significantly modified by the more evanescent reality of the mind.”

Radin offers sections of text that carefully, and clearly, define such phenomena as telepathy, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, precognition, ESP, out-of-body experience, near-death experience, and reincarnation. He feels that, in spite of the fact that such states have been in existence (with much evidence of them) “for millennia,” science itself has evolved into the absurd position of “the mind denying its own existence” (“Science has effectively lost its mind.”), and he believes that underlying the world of ordinary objects and human experience “is another reality, an interconnected world of intermingling relationship and possibilities”—an underlying reality “more fundamental–in the sense of being the ground state from which everything originates—than the transient forms and dynamic relationships of familiar experience.”

Here is Dean Radin, and the cover of his book The Conscious Universe. (Photo credit: http://www.deanradin.com)

Dean_Radin_Photo    Dean Radin The Conscious Universe

I like a witticism Radin attributes to physicist Nick Herbert, who makes the claim (along with other writers we’ve encountered) that consciousness is our “biggest mystery,” but adds: “it is not that we possess bad or imperfect theories of human awareness, we simply have no sense of them at all. About all we know about consciousness is that it has something to do with the head, rather than the feet.”

Henry P. Stapp’s favored concept, “interconnection,” shows up again. In support for his case or stance, Radin quotes Teilhard de Chardin: “The farther and more deeply we penetrate into matter, by means of increasingly powerful methods, the more we are confounded by the interdependence of its parts … All around us, as far as the eye can see, the universe holds together, and only one way of considering it is really possible, that is, to take it as a whole, in one piece.” And Radin quotes Sogyal Rinpoche (The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying): “Everything is inextricably interrelated. We come to realize that we are responsible for everything we do, say, or think, responsible in fact for ourselves, everyone and everything else, and the entire universe.”

Radin likes the word “uni-verse”: a connected world, “not a set of isolated fragments,” which suggests another responsibility (or creative challenge) entailed: “We all carry ideas about who we are, or who we have been taught to believe we are … not only is our perception of the world a construction, but also our sense of who we think we are.”

For all his idealism, Dean Radin’s book is not devoid of practical application. In a section dealing with such (with a heading, “Medicine”), he writes, “We envison that future experiments will continue to confirm that distant mental healing is not only real, but is clinically useful in treating certain physical and mental illnesses.” And he closes on a hopeful note: ‘A society that      consciously uses precognitive information to guide the future is one that is realizing true freedom … This would allow us to create the future as we wish, rather than blindly follow a predetermined course through our ignorance.”

Thus spake Jeffrey M. Schwartz, Henry P. Stapp, and Dean Radin. Before we move on to “jazz” (and applying some of these theories to the art of improvisation), I’d like to cite a final passage from another book I mentioned in passing: The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul—a book whose final vision for the future contains even larger aspiration than the others I’ve discussed: “Mystical experience from various spiritual traditions indicates that the nature of the mind, consciousness, and reality as well as the meaning of life can be apprehended through an intuitive, unitive, and experiential form of knowing … The proposed new scientific frame of reference may accelerate our understanding of this process of spiritualization and significantly contribute to the emergence of a planetary type of consciousness. The development of this type of consciousness is absolutely essential if humanity is to successfully solve the global crises that confront us … and wisely create a future that benefits all humans and all forms of life on planet earth.”

Here’s  my own “take” on the mind/brain drama: I tend to get frustrated, and feel quite helpless, when a “machine” I own (such as the laptop I am working on just now; or a blood pressure monitor, or even the kitchen toaster) doesn’t function as it should (James Thurber quipped, “Machines don’t like me!”), so if I am a machine myself (as classic Newtonian physics claims), and I don’t function well (which happens from time to time—maybe I should say often!), it’s no wonder I spend (precious, hopefully potentially productive) time being upset. On the other hand, Quantum theory allows us to live our lives in the moment as it is, whatever it is or may be (being and becoming), no matter what matter it’s made of (rim shot!), and we truly need to take this gift, this moment in time–and ourselves–just as we find it (and ourselves!), and make the best of it. The same holds true for the external world, not just our internal existence—for the two are One.

So what does any of this have to do with jazz improvisation? Well … everything! The best “ingredients” of quantum physics can be found in the best jazz—when both are moving, grooving as they should: interconnected, mindful, intuitive, unitive, and experiential. Which brings us to the wondrous world–or universe–of jazz itself (at last, you may quip, and I don’t blame  you!). I was ready, I was “up,” for the 60th Monterey Jazz Festival, because I was eager to see and hear a group I had heard (and read) “good things” about: John Beasley’s MONK’estra.

Journalist Willard Jenkins interviewed Beasley regarding his fresh, brilliant, innovative (all the things Thelonious Monk himself was!) arrangements of the music, and Willard quoted Beasley: “The germ of MONK’estra started with my desire to experiment with 21st century harmony for big band that swings and grooves … I started reimagining Monk’s “Epistrophy” and quickly realized that his music was the perfect match for this. The swing is already written in and since his music is very pliable, I found that I could stretch my imagination.”

Willard Jenkins adds, “John Beasley has done a marvelous job of contemporizing Thelonious Monk’s music”—and Beasley himself continues: “I compare Monk’s music to how the public must have felt upon its first view of Cubist art by Pablo Picasso, which revolutionized modern art.” I agree, because, whereas I was fascinated when I first heard Monk play, I couldn’t grasp what he was up to, and resisted it—the way that he was revolutionizing jazz. Beasley says, “On the eve of his centennial it is evident that we have finally caught up to where he was taking us.”

Here’s a photo of John Beasley and the full MONK’estra aggregate—and a photo in performance. (Photo credits: www.laweekly.com; http://www.montereyjazzfestival.org)

John Beasley and Monkestra

John Beasley's MONK'estra_(c)Eric Wolfinger_SFJAZZ_2015_0182_crop

At the Monterey Jazz Festival, MONK’estra performed on Sunday afternoon. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but took notes from the start on what I heard: a not just swinging, grooving big band, but one that rocked (fully inclusive, with a surprising backbeat)—an ultra-tight ensemble, with powerful section work to support (surround and enhance) soloists who offered their share of funky licks: a little bit of everything (trying all the options on for size, simultaneously, something for everyone, like Henry Stapp’s “universal system of basic values suitable to all people, without regard to the accidents of their origins”: Quantum Physics!); a host of Monk tunes, a medly seemingly undifferentiated, a continuous suite of Thelonious. I didn’t bother to write down the titles. I just dug the tunes as a truly handsome bunch, and the full range of interpretation and improvised ingenuity based on the originals: explosive dynamics (deep growling baritone sax: Adam Schroeder; wailing trombone: Francisco Torres; altruistic alto sax: Bob Sheppard); fulsome ensemble support or “fill”; luscious unison work; luminous orchestration (as if John Beasley, like Hector Berlioz, who wrote the book on it, knows the exact timbre, texture of each and every instrument—and the best combinations or match ups); each separate melody or “head” the genesis of the next—and the truly recognizable (some of my favorite Monk tunes, “Pannonica,” “I Mean You,” “Ugly Beauty,” “Gallop’s Gallop”) emerging with all their grace and style.

Few of the tunes were announced (if I remember correctly) throughout (Beasley slipped over to the keyboards himself, unobtrusively, for “Pannonica”): just a perfectly put together wild wonderful onslaught of Thelonious, with glimpses of counterpoint, blues vamp, more than just a little “Latin touch,” a wire brush percussive break, smooth liquid sequences building to a full force orchestral flourish, and close out.

Something I realized, writing those last two paragraphs now, is that I could supplement many phrases of description with Quantum Theory “fill”—as if John Beasley’s continuous suite had been composed on Quantum principles, for it was rift with the distinct flow of particles acting as waves, nonlocal “instantaneous action at a distance,” music fully grounded in itself (its own nature, its affinity with natural life: free of the tendency of free jazz straining, trying too hard, at times, to be “free,” yet free, also, of the tendency of big bands to get locked into mandatory, or obligatory concord or unity; this group was just MONK’estra, itself, having a grand Quantum Monk time!): its music a fully present “fact,” in the Alfred North Whitehead sense of the “preeminence of congruence” established “over the indefinite herd of other such relations”—music intimately interconnected, at one with itself: music, in Henry Stapp’s words, “guided by conscious reflection and evaluation … one’s weighing of the welfare of the whole”—abundantly laced with joyous “mindfulness,” John Beasley has fulfilled his desire, his intent “to stretch [his] imagination” and, on the eve of Thelonious Monk’s centennial, “to finally [get] caught up to where he was taking us.”

Here are two geniuses side by side: Thelonious Monk and Alfred North Whitehead (Photo credit: www.burtglinn.com)

Thelonious Monk 8     Alfred North Whitehead Process and Reality

I had two enjoyable encounters following the exceptional MONK’estra set. I stopped at a long table set up on the grounds, and had a Brother Thelonious Belgian Style Abbey Ale (North Coast Brewing has donated over $1 million from proceeds of the sale of the beer and gear to support the Jazz education programs of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz.). Standing next to me was a very short man dressed like Harlequin, an outrageous costume. I’d done some work for the 60th Monterey Jazz Festival (copy for an exhibit of historical posters, “Monterey at 60: A Visual Feast,” and a series of humorous historical anecdotes included in a video shown at several venues that weekend), and I was wearing what prompted my just-made friend to say, “Your badge would suggest you are a person of some importance.” Ironically, at that moment, one of my anecdotal “slides” appeared on a large screen in a pavilion adjacent to us that had couches and chairs and served drinks—so I told my new friend and his companions about my work for the Festival, and said, “Look, that’s one of mine.” They seemed impressed and asked for my card, which I gave them, and they all promised, on the spot, to buy all three of my jazz books—claiming, “Why, you yourself are living history! And you look like a writer!”

Here’s an example of one of my anecdotal “slides” (on an appearance at the MJF by Miles Davis) and the poster for the 60th Monterey Jazz Festival:

Leonard Nelson Miles Davis Quote   MJF-17-Poster_small4

The encounter was good fun, but the next one was even better. I set out for the North Coast Brewing pavilion, to meet a journalist friend, Dan Ouellette (who conducts the DownBeat Blindfold Test each year at the MJF), and who should he be talking to when I arrived but John Beasley himself, who’d retired there with nearly his entire orchestra after their set. Dan has written about John, so he introduced me, and we sat together for … a Brother Thelonious Belgian Style Abbey Ale, of course!   

Fifty-eight year old Shreveport, Louisiana born John Beasley has a (Southern?) gentlemanly presence, well abetted by urban studio work savvy (He was lead arranger for American Idol for eleven years), and a genuine genial jazz musician’s “cool” manner. You might say he’s very quantum inclusive! I enjoyed talking with him, much! I told him about my own experience as fully undeserving house pianist at a place called the 456 Club in Brooklyn in 1956 (when I attended Pratt Institute), and meeting classical and jazz composer, arranger, and pianist Hal Overton there. It was Overton whom Thelonious Monk selected to score his piano works for orchestra; a performance of these compositions recorded live in 1959 (and released as The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall).In 1963, Monk recorded a second live album with orchestral arrangements by Overton at the New York Philharmonic Hall, released as Big Band and Quartet in Concert.

Here are the two Monk CDs for which Hall Overton provided arrangements:

Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall   Thelonious Monk Big Band and Concert CD

John Beasley seemed interested, and even asked if I would give him my card (“Living history,” and Wow, I’d now handed out two of my “business” cards in one hour!). I even told John that I’d had a cabaret card in New York City when Monk couldn’t get one (he’d ben arrested on an extremely questionable charge of “possession,” and not only confined for sixty days in prison, but the New York State Liquor Authority removed his cabaret card, without which you could not get hired for local club dates.) He was reinstated in 1957. He was on the cover of Time magazine in 1964.

John Beasley’s own life, and career, is fascinating. He grew up in a musical family. His grandfather, Rule Oliver, played trombone in territory bands; his mother, Lida, taught music in public schools and colleges, as well as conducting operas (she earned a local Emmy for her work in Faust). John’s father, another Rule, is a pianist and bassoonist who played with the Fort Worth Symphony, and was a professor of music at two colleges. John Beasley learned to play trumpet, oboe, drums, saxophone, flute—and jazz piano, for which he is best known now, along with his arranging)—and he went on to record and perform with Miles Davis, Sergio Mendes, Steely Dan, Dianne Reeves, and James Brown. John became musical director for the Thelonious Monk Institute Tribute and International Jazz Day concerts, and has been nominated for an Emmy Award and three times for a Grammy for three different albums.

He claims he “always had a thing for Thelonious Monk,” and in 2012, he wrote a big-band chart for “Epistrophy,” then “Ask Me Now.” He formed a 15-piece band composed of top West Coast musicians, and has released two MONK’estra recordings. Here they are:

John Beasley's MONK'estra Vol. 1    John Beasley's MONK'estra Vol. 2

Thelonious Monk’s son T.S. has stated, “My father would have approved.” Writer Neil Tessler comments on Beasley’s “refreshing 21st century take on the ever new music” of Monk, and praises the arranger’s solid “link to the composer’s vision,” exceptional “orchestral writing,” and even Beasley’s willingness to “spark some controversy” (“using darkened harmonies and backbeat rhythms,” “a tonal pallet reminiscent of neo-soul,” on a familiar tune such as “’Round Midnight”). Tessler writes that the arranger “has deftly pulled [“Midnight”] into the orbit of modern listeners … has simply returned this song to its roots, with a conceptual twist that simultaneously makes it fresh.” Beasley has created “an entire collection of excitingly re-conceived and marvelously executed compositions.”

Elsewhere, Tessler has written that Beasley possesses “a willingness to engage  these compositions with an ingenuity as audacious as the one that created them.” John Beasley’s “lifelong love of arranging” has made it possible for him to take Monk’s music, so open “to interpretation,” and enhance it with (in his own words) his own “architecture,” going well beyond “the idea of theme-solos-theme,” because, “like all great songs, Monk’s songs lend themselves to a more personal interpretation, especially when it comes to arranging.” Tessler adds, “Maybe Beasley’s affinity for Monk was simply meant to be. Monk was born October 10 in 1917; 43 years later to the day, Beasley showed up.”

I’m grateful that he did: not only in this life and for the sake of jazz, but, selfishly for my own sake, for that Sunday afternoon MONK’estra set at the 60th Monterey Jazz Festival, and for the excellent conversation I had with him after, over Brother Thelonious Belgian Style Abbey Ale! Thank you, Dan Ouellette, for introducing us—and thank you, John Beasley, for all you have given us by way of music.

I love writing this blog—the quantum “freedom” of it (when I can find time and presence of mind to do so), and if you’d told me years ago that I would someday put together an “informal essay” that combined an examination of quantum theory with an account of a first-rate jazz performance, I would more than likely have thought you crazy. So thanks for being a bit crazy in a manner to inspire me now! I look forward to surprising you (again?) with my next blog post, whenever it happens and whatever it’s about (the “uncertainty principle” again).

 

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Imagination and Hard Science

At the risk of offending my poet friends (and prose writers too–especially those espousing “creative nonfiction”), I am going to make the claim that the most imaginative, the most innovative, the most inspired (I’m tempted to truly get in deep trouble and add words such as “expressive,” “original,” “visionary,” even “artistic”) work I find being offered at this time (this era, now: 2016) is being done in the hard sciences: work undertaken by evolutionary biologists, cognitive scientists, neuroscientists, linguists, and psychophysicists.

There—I said it, and I am prepared for execrations cast upon my head.

When I was a kid, a fledgling visual artist and musician “by birth” (that is, I just fell into it without a thought but lots of “heart”), I drew pictures of everything that came in sight, and attempted, simultaneously, to learn to play four instruments: clarinet, piano, drums, and guitar. In high school, I was granted exemption (by an English teacher named Vida B. McGiffen) from reading both MacBeth and Moby Dick so I might produce a comic strip for the school newspaper (Vida also taught journalism), and render posters for fellow students aspiring to political office (class president, secretary, treasurer, etc.). On the basis of this work, and the fact that I had an “orchestra’ (called such, but really just a combo) which played dance music for proms (and jazz, when we could fit it in), I was, in my senior year, voted “Boy Most Likely to Succeed”—an honor for which I was totally unqualified. And, to add insult to injury (with regard to the “standards” of the era), I was somehow, without having ever taken a course in biology, chemistry, or physics (I did take geometry and did OK with that, for it was mostly “pictures” I could comprehend), I applied for and was accepted as a student at the University of Michigan. In the College of Architecture and Design—with a major in painting and drawing (of course, not architecture).

Here I am as wannabe musician at age 15 (playing piano in J.P. Wolff’s combo; dig the gut bucket bass played, in a bow tie, by Dave Campbell) and yours truly as a fledgling visual artist (age 19) at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn (I’ll confess I took a required course in anatomy—as close as I ever got to “science”–and here are some of the drawings I did at that time):

bill-with-j-p-wolff-band  bill-at-pratt1

pratt-drawing-9        pratt-drawing-10

So much, at the time, for my acquaintance with hard science. When, a few years later, I became interested in literature—especially poetry, and began to write it (or attempt to write it), I fell in love with William Blake and fully endorsed his concept of imagination, and his disdain for “science”: “A fourfold vision is given to me: / ‘Tis fourfold in my supreme delight / And threefold in soft Beulah’s night / And twofold Always. May God us keep / From Single Vision & Newton’s Sleep.”

To Blake, Sir Issac Newton’s major fault or failure was his inability to see beyond objective reality, beyond a strictly material universe. For Blake, two fold vision was seeing not just with but “through the eye”: the perception of spiritual forces in material objects. For Blake, things get even better with threefold vision, when an image in the mind is seen so vividly that it takes on objective reality—(as did the face of God at a window when Blake was just four years old, or Ezekiel sitting placidly under a tree.). Fourfold vision was best of all: revelation—the sort of extremely intense impression of eternity which became the source for Blake’s poetry and art work: something “sanctified.”

Here are: a portrait of William Blake and his “Auguries of Innocence”: “To see a world in a grain of sand. And a heaven in a wild flower. Hold infinity in the palm of your hand. And eternity in an hour.” (Photo credits: www.biography.com and Philip Coppens)

william-blake   blake-auguries-of-innocence

The products of such creative perception were not, in Northrup Frye’s words (commentary on Blake I devoured, and adopted as “truth”), “an escape from reality but a systematic training in comprehending it”: the experience of complete or totally fulfilled reality: permanent living form outside time and space. As we grow older, we gain control of the abstract ideas that make up society: politics, science, and religion; but if such control replaces true vision it becomes enslavement to hopeless convention. We sacrifice our own mental and spiritual birthright, and adult maturity only proves to be degeneration, just another fall from grace–binding with briars our joys and desires. I came to the conclusion that all human failures are, truly, failures of the imagination. In Frye’s words again (paraphrasing Blake): “The only happiness that exists is derived from the free creative life.” In Blake’s view, the highest faculty is a human being’s imagination—his or her very own life!

Once again: so much for hard science! So how, having once “entertained” such beliefs, did I ever arrive at the attitude I espoused in the opening paragraph?

I am now eighty years of age and “entertaining” medical issues that range from those that affect my vision (macular degeneration, ophthalmic migraine, and being at risk for detached retina) to vestibular (daily vertigo) to esophageal (GERD). “Boy Most Likely to Succeed” indeed! (ho ho). However, a longtime fan of Oliver Sacks (accept the condition, recognize the compensations, and move on!), I am attempting to acknowledge “a hidden order, a new sort of order, in the midst of disorder”; opportunities that might make existence even more meaningful than it was before the “decline” or “deprivation” or “disease” set in.

Enter, for the first time in my life: hard science! I seem to be the sort of person who finds it possible to accept nearly any unanticipated condition, once I am in a position to understand it, to comprehend what’s going on.

Facing serious changes or “alterations” in both body and mind, I began to study whatever it might be that had caused them (how such systems function, or fail to function): an undertaking which has led me to read some of the most extraordinary books I’ve ever encountered–and to a revision of my up-to-now conception of imagination. I’ve been devouring contemporary books by dedicated scientists who write quite well, science writers not committed by nature to overt acts of imagination, but to examining every possibility in the pursuit of hard “truths” about our brains and bodies, exploring every hypothesis that might lead to further, more extensive understanding, even when—in the words of one of these practitioners (Michael Gazzaniga, in The Mind’s Past)—the answers may not “point to a body of knowledge where one result leads to another,” but activity in which revised opinion is incessant (new discoveries building on old ones), or a “truth” arrived at is controversial and may be quite difficult for many people to swallow–such as, in the words of another practitioner (“leading evolutionary theorist” Robert Trivers, in The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life) : “The time is ripe for a general theory of deceit and self-deception based on evolutionary logic, a theory that in principle applies to all species with special force to our own. We are thoroughgoing liars, even to ourselves. Our most prized possession—language—not only strengthens our ability to lie but greatly extends its range.”

Here are: Robert Trivers, and his book: The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life (Photo credit: evolution.rutgers.edu):

robert-trivers            robert-trivrs-the-folly-of-fools

“I don’t consider my ideas controversial,” ground and “gender-breaking” biologist Lynn Margulis said of her theory on “endosymbiosis” (having studied the evolution of mitochondria, and formulated theories rejected up to 1967), “I consider them right.”

One of the amazing things I have discovered in the well written books I’ve read, is just how imaginative work devoted to the pursuit of hard won facts can be, work that insists on taking a good solid look at every alternative, every possibility; work that asks vexing questions for which there may only be ambivalent answers (if answers at all), work relying on guesswork or speculation—work for which no easy categorization is available; and yet I did find many of the options, potentials, or alternatives presented wildly imaginative!

For example: in Harnassed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man, neuroscientist Mark Changizi presents just about every hypothesis regarding the origin of music—one of which is the “art form” began with the fetus “listening” in its “Momma’s womb”: “Our in-utero days of warmth and comfort get strongly associated to Momma’s heartbeat, and the musical beat taps into those associations, bringing back warm fetus feelings.” Considering this possibility (and just how warm and fuzzy that nest really might have been), Changizi asks, “Why aren’t there other in-utero experiences that forever stay with us? Why don’t we, say, like to wear artificial umbilical cords, thereby evoking recollections of the womb?” Great! What a fine act of imagination! Have fashion designers ever thought of this? Or poets at Blake’s two, three or fourfold state of “vision”?

And speaking of such (extraordinary “vision”), in The Ravenous Brain: How the New Science of Consciousness Explains Our Insatiable Search for Meaning, cognitive neuroscientist Daniel Bor writes: “The semi-chaotic activity of our 85 billion neurons undergoes a kind of temporary natural selection every moment of our waking lives, as attention shapes the contents of consciousness … Those [neurons] with the most powerful voice recruit others to their case, and suppress any dissenters, until the strongest thought is carried by millions of neurons, all with one voice– … for instance. to look for the black hair of your lover as she approaches.” Did you have any idea that such lively conversation, such artful dialogue, was being carried on in those three pounds of jello (or tofu) at the top of your head—and for every thought, not just those regarding your latest infatuation? I didn’t, and I’m thrilled … although I may have trouble falling asleep from here on in, knowing I am responsible for providing some (temporary) rest or surcease for those 58 billion neurons!

Elsewhere in The Ravenous Brain, Daniel Bor offers one of the most insightful observations–or lines of poetry–I’ve ever found on the art of quiet thought or contemplation: “An ideal meditation is one where you try to be as aware as you can of as little as possible.” Poetry–pure and simple!

Bor also offers intriguing insights on the fact that our brains, with all their elaborate machinery, are not as inclusive as they would appear to be, for at any given time, only “a small number of items are available to much of the brain”—actually just four at a time! “Our working limit of a handful of items is basically the same as a monkey’s, though a monkey’s brain is about 1/15th the size of our own.”’ Fortunately, our great human gift, “working memory,” is “available to every corner of the brain,” and lets us see much more and “carry out our most complex tasks, such as language and planning.” Bor concludes: “The process of combining more primitive pieces of information to create something more meaningful is a crucial aspect both of learning and of consciousness and is one of the defining features of human experience.”

Here’s a photo of Daniel Bor, and the cover of his book The Ravenous Brain: How the New Science of Consciousness Explains Our Insatiable Search for Meaning:

daniel-bor    daniel-bor-the-ravenous-brain

Hard science writing, ironically, seems infatuated with metaphor—more than likely because it occasionally (frequently?) runs up against difficulties describing or explaining its discoveries (outside the “precision of numbers” it relies on so heavily). Much of the work I read (and relished) had resorted to (verbal) analogies: metaphors, say, for the intricate “computational landscape” of the brain, the massive array of networks it contains—analogies such as the “interpreter” offered by Mark Garraniga in The Mind’s Past: “What system ties the vast output of our thousands upon thousands of automatic systems into our subjectivity to render a personal story for each of us? … A special system carries out this interpretive synthesis. Located only in the brain’s left hemisphere, the interpreter seeks explanations for internal and external events. It is tied to our general capacity to see how contiguous events relate to one another … In general the interpreter seeks to understand the world. In doing so it creates the illusion that we are in control of all our actions and reasoning. We become the center of a sphere of action so large it has no walls.” Having discovered that, I am attempting now to get on better terms with my own “interpreter.”

Other analogies I found are: Stanislas Dehaene’s (from Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts) “global neuronal workshop” (I love it! I want to attend that workshop!); Victor Lamme’s “recurrent processing” (or “neuronal chatter”), to Giullo Tononi’s “Information integration theory.” And when it comes to the study of delays between inclination and conscious awareness of enactment: I like Gerald Eldeman’s “the remembered present” (from the book with that title; see also: Bright Air, Brilliant Fire and Wider Than the Sky)—and Mark Changizi’s insights in The Vision Revolution: How the Latest Research Overturns Everything We Thought We Knew About Human Vision on “future-seeing” (the 10th of a second delay that makes it necessary for visual perception to foresee the future and “thus perceive the present,” for otherwise every ball thrown to us would be just a ball thrown at us, landing smack in the face before we had a thought to catch it.

Here are some photos of “neuronal chatter”—the brain at work talking to itself. (Photo credits: hms.harvard.edu; medical express.com; http://www.iflscience.com):

Neuron cells
High quality 3d macro render of Neuron cells

neuronal-chatter-1   neuronal-chatter-3

In his groundbreaking book, The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins, a self-confessed “enthusiastic Darwinian,” provided a thorough but “necessarily speculative” (“Nobody was around to see what happened.”) account of the origin of life: a “primeval soup” that “constituted the seas some three thousand million years ago,” permitting organisms or “survival machines’ (such as “us”) to adopt existence—and then he took a big jump, in chapter eleven of his book, to “Memes: The new Replicators,” acknowledging that, for an understanding of the evolution of modern man, “we must begin by throwing out the gene as the sole basis of our ideas on evolution.” Dawkins finds Darwinism “too big a theory to be confined to the narrow context of the gene”–“selfish” or not—and he confesses: “The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation.” So Dawkins gave birth to the “meme” (a word which rhymes with “cream”—a word derived from Ancient Greek μίμημα (mīmēma), meaning “that which is imitated,”“something copied.”

I’m not able to do full justice to his theory here (again, The Selfish Gene, and a subsequent book, The Extended Phenotype are sources to be checked out), but here’s a taste of genetic inheritance, today: Memes are “tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions,” etc. “Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperm or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation … If you contribute to the world’s culture, if you have a good idea, compose a tune, invent a spark plug, write a poem, it may live on, intact, after your genes have dissolved in the common pool … What we have not previously considered is that a cultural trait may have evolved in the way that it has, simply because it is advantageous to itself … All that is necessary is that the brain should be capable of imitation: memes then evolve that exploit the capacity to the full.”

Dawkins ends his chapter on memes “on a note of qualified hope,” saying, “One unique feature of man, which may or may not have evolved memically, is his capacity for conscious foresight. Selfish genes (and if you allow the speculation in this chapter, memes too) have no foresight. They are unconscious, blind, replicators.” BUT … “We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination. We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism—something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world … We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.” Amen, Brother! Long live altruism!

I’ve read every book I could get my hands on by superb stylist Stephen Pinker (How the Mind Works; Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature; The Better Angels of Our Nature), but my favorite book of his is The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature—a book in which he combines exactitude and thorough disclosure (with no skimping on the demands of “hard science” here) with his quick wit and rare humor and outright charm. In The Stuff of Thought, he offers sections called “The Blaspheming Brain” and “The Semantics of Swearing,” as entertaining and enlightening as the work of Lenny Bruce and George Carlin (both of whom he cites), and Pinker takes the reader on a tour of the “linguistic, psychological, and neurological underpinnings of swearing”—focusing on the most obvious thread: “strong negative emotion,” “what kinds of thoughts are upsetting to people, and why one person might want to inflict these thoughts on another,” the major source of taboo words: sexuality; and the cathartic release that swearing provides.

Here’s a photo of Stephen Pinker, and his book The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature. (Photo credit: twitter.com)

stephen-pinker   stephen-pinker-the-stuff-of-thought

Writing on the “joys of swearing” for language lovers, Pinker quotes one of favorite poems (Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Voice” (check it out!), and concludes that, “when used judiciously, swearing can be hilarious, poignant, and uncannily descriptive … More than any other form of language, it recruits our expressive faculties to the fullest … It engages the full expanse of the brain: left and right, high and low, ancient and modern.” He quotes one of my favorite lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest: Caliban speaking “for the entire human race when he said, ‘You taught me language, and my profit on it is, I know how to curse.” And Pinker points out the irony that, when Norman Mailer “wrote his true-to-life novel about World War II, The Naked and the Dead, in 1948, he knew it would be a betrayal of his depiction of the soldiers to have them speak without swearing. His compromise with the sensibilities of the day was to have them use the pseudo-epithet fug.” Pinker adds, “When Dorothy Parker met him she said, ‘So you’re the man who doesn’t know how to spell fuck.’”

Robert Trivers (The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life) has a sharp, smooth, easy-going conversational writing style which, like Steven Pinker’s, takes you right into his confidence and keeps you there. Because of the “aging process” I appear to be undergoing myself, I was curious to see what he had to say on that subject, and thoroughly enjoyed what I found. I’ve already presented Triver’s main thesis (“We lie to ourselves the better to lie to others.”), but he finds an “old-age positivity effect” (which he regards as similar to “choosing to listen to pleasing music”): “a striking bias” that sets in, by age sixty, with regard to “positive social perceptions and memories.” If you study the eye movements of older people, you find they “spend more time inspecting faces with positive expressions than negative, and the positive ones are remembered later more often.” Trivers traces this “measurable effect” to the brain’s amygdala, “where positive faces evoke a stronger response than negative ones in older people but not in younger people.” This trait even affects the immune system: “In old age it hardly matters what you learn, but greater positive effect is associated with stronger immune response, so you may be selected to trade a grasp of reality for a boost in dealing with a main problem, that of internal enemies, including cancer.” So why, with so much good stuff going for us, are old people “perceived as being cranky or grumpy”? Triver’s response: “With increasing age, for reasons that are not entirely clear, people suffer greater deficits in their inhibitory abilities, that is, their ability to stop behavior under way that they may wish to stop.”

Here’s a sample of the way he approaches “The Value of Being Conscious” (a section title in his book): “There are two great axes in human mental life; intelligence and consciousness. You can be very bright but unconscious, or slow but conscious, or any of the combinations in between … We may easily embrace false narratives. To be conscious is to be aware of possibilities, including those arising in a world saturated with deceit and self-deception … Consciousness and ability to change are two different variables … This to me is the real paradox or tragedy of self-deception—we wish we could do better but we can’t.” Yet, consciousness of deceit and self-deception allows us “to enjoy it more … to fight such tendencies in ourselves should we wish to. Mostly it gives us much greater insight into the social world surrounding us, everything from the lies of the government and the media to the deeper self-deceptions we tell ourselves and our loved ones.”

And I love what Trivers has to say about friendship: “Friends are also useful as commentators on our ongoing life … they see the interaction from the outside, as if others were actors in a play. I am embedded in the play but they are not. They can see what I cannot … I have often thought the popularity of plays partly came from the fact that the audience could see all, while the actors were constrained by their position on the stage.”

Let me close with one last book: Ed Yong’s extraordinary I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, a work that has been extolled by one reviewer as “Beyond fascinating … It will change the way you think about the world. It’ll change who you think you are.”—and I agree. I would, if I could, make this book required reading for every-one—from poets to potentates (of whatever persuasion) to plumbers. Like some of the other science writers I’ve cited, Yong is a master of analogies. He compares the immune system to “a team of rangers carefully managing a national park,” saying that if microbes breach the park’s fences (read “mucus”: “Nearly all animals use mucus to cover tissues that are exposed to the outside world. For us, that means guts, lungs, noses, and genitals.”), the rangers “push them back and fortify the barrier … They keep equilibrium within the community, and constantly defend this balance from threats both foreign and domestic.”

Here are: Ed Yong giving a Ted talk; his book I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life; some microbes; and an illustrated account of endosymbiosis. (Photo credits: www.ted.com; www.ilfscience.com; daniellachace,com; wired.com; www.nature.com–E. Virginia Armbrust)

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microbes-1  microbes-2

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endosymbiosisMy wife and I are going to celebrate our 60th wedding anniversary in January, in Kauai, where, in 1957, we spent a honeymoon summer in a shack on the Wailua River, just about half a mile up from the Pacific Ocean. We hoped, now, to renew our vows, but Hawaii law requires either a church or official courthouse ceremony for that ritual, so we plan to create a “comic rite” of our own (to share with our two sons and their wives, and four grandchildren), and Ed Yong’s exceptional book is filled with examples of cooperation (among microbes) that I feel we can readily adapt to our own marital situation. Here’s a sample that he begins with a quote from H.G. Wells: “Every symbiosis is, in its degree, underlain with hostility, and only by proper regulation and often elaborate adjustment can the state of mutual benefit be maintained. Even in human affairs, the partnerships for mutual benefit are not so easily kept up …”; and Yong takes it from there, as applied to the ways and means we, as humans, have found to stabilize “our relationship with our microbes, of promoting fealty rather than defection … Like all the best relationships, these ones take work. Every major transition in the history of life—from single-celled, from individuals to symbiotic collectives—has had to solve the same problem of how can the selfish interests of individuals be overcome to form cooperative groups.” Or a “group” such as two people who’ve been married for 60 years.

Here, just for the fun of it (neurons, microbes, and all) are some photos of my wife Betty and I, living in a shack on the Wailua River in 1957 (when we were 21 and just married): Betty eating pineapple with our host, Mr. Eisenberg; Betty joyous beside the river; me sitting under the lanai, contemplating the universe from afar; and Betty feeding one of our charges, Joe the Goose (who didn’t like me at all and nipped viciously–bad microbes at work!–at the back of my legs because I never fed him):

betty-and-mr-eisenberg-eating-pineapple   betty-in-hawaii

bill-under-lanai-kauai         betty-feeding-joe-the-goose

Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes (poets will notice the “lift” from Walt Whitman) is loaded with so many wise gems that, should I not restrain myself, I could quote endlessly. Let me bring this blog to a close by citing two more examples from his book—the first of which affected me “personally.” He writes at some length about a scientist, Bruce German, who is doing extensive research in what he regards as a “superfood,” “the perfect source of nutrition”: milk—and the ambivalent service provided when obtained from a mother: “little spheres of fat, encased in proteins that resemble those in [our new friend] mucus”—globules that “provide nutrition to a baby,” but also may “give baby’s first viruses a foothold in the gut.” German’s research has disclosed much about the “huge interwoven system for stabilizing our relationship with our microbes … viruses can be allies, immune systems can support microbes, and a breastfeeding mother isn’t just feeding a baby but also setting up an entire world.” Breast milk is “far more than a bag of chemicals. It nourishes baby and bacteria, infant and infantis alike. It’s a preliminary immune system that thwarts more malevolent microbes. It is the means by which a mother ensures that her children have the right companions, from their first days of life. And it prepares the baby for life ahead.”

I took a special interest in this section of Yong’s book because, as a baby, I was allergic to my mother’s milk, and it was interesting to learn just how much I might have missed out on. Then, in a chapter called “The Long Waltz,” Ed Yong composes a symphony (or poem) in praise of our “beginnings” and relationships (between animals and bacteria) in which “partners have been waltzing together for millions of years”—honoring vexing questions about “the first steps of the long waltz” that are almost always “lost in deep time, and have left few footprints for us to follow”—but essential questions which scholars of symbiosis–in spite of the fact that “all animals evolved from single-celled predators that ate other things”–hope someday to answer.

Here are some photos of interesting specimens: “The adorable Hawaiian bobtail squid” which house “a single species of luminous bacteria, which hide it from predators.” and “the fearsome beewolf” that protects its larvae “by painting their burrows in antibiotic-producing microbes.” (Photo credits: featurecreature.com: Carly Brook; splash.sussex.ac.uk)

hawaiian_bobtail_squid041  beewolf

My acquaintance (so long forestalled) with the world–the universe–I have been describing has not just been exciting, but thrilling—and not so far removed from William Blake’s vision as it seemed, at first (Yong himself writes: “To peer into this world is to peer into William Blake’s grain of sand.”). If nothing else, I learned that it most certainly is possible, at age 80, to learn something “brand new”—to domesticate the unfamiliar and add it to the familiar inhabitants of the brain (all that “artsy fartsy” stuff I’ve carried there throughout my life). I joke with my wife Betty that at the age of 80, I’m thinking seriously of going back to school and become a neurosurgeon, but now, having read Ed Yong’s amazing book, I just might switch my “major” to microbiology.

So far, Betty has definitely not “bought into,” or even acknowledged, my crazy advanced-age ambition (or dream), so my life remains focused on getting a consistent amount of writing done and making music whenever (and wherever) I can. I was exaggerating, of course, when I said—at the start of this blog post (I was just trying to get your attention, ho ho)—that I considered hard science work the most imaginative, most innovative, and most inspiring work being done just now, although I wasn’t exaggerating by much.

I do continue to “devour” the work of inspired poets in whom imagination continues to reign supreme (Amy Gerstler, Mary Ruefle, Li-Young Lee, and my good friend Robert Sward, to name just a few), and I just returned from a weekend at the Monterey Jazz Festival, having heard music as expressive, original, and artistically inventive as any I’ve ever witnessed (Josh Redman, Ron Miles, Brian Blade, Somi, Gregoire Maret, Claudia Villela–to drop a few more names).

What I love about all that I am exploring, and enjoying at this time of my life, is being able to set two seemingly disparate worlds–“Art” (if you will) and hard science–side by side: allowing them to converse with one another and take delight in their own symbiosis, “promoting fealty rather than defection.” Even though my own vestibular system may be somewhat shot, I have a far better sense of balance now between William Blake’s “free creative life” (“fourfold vision” and a world “in a grain of sand”) and the world of science I had ignored—and I thank every microbe, good and bad (Yong: “By partnering with microbes, we can quicken the slow deliberate adagio of our evolutionary music to the brisk, lively allegro of theirs.”) for the fortunate union I’ve arrived at–my vertical DNA in mutual accord now with busy neuronal and microbiome life so rich with all its vivid horizontal inheritance.

I also want to thank everyone who takes time (and has patience enough) to read this blog (I have jokingly referred to these posts, or “essays,” as a unique genre: “Blog Baroque.”). Since I undertook Bill’s Blog in February of 2013, I have gathered 3,501 visitors from counties all over the world (from Algeria, Australia, and Azerbaijan to Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, and United States to Venezuela and Vietnam). Unfortunately, I don’t know who all of you are (as individuals), even when I am provided with information as to where you are—but I am very grateful for the time and attention you have paid to what I write.