Serendipity

Published on by Catherine Toulsaly

 

I wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o'er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffodils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

 

Continuous as the stars that shine

And twinkle on the milky way,

They stretched in never-ending line

Along the margin of a bay:

Ten thousand saw I at a glance,

Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

 

The waves beside them danced; but they

Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:

A poet could not but be gay,

In such a jocund company:

I gazed—and gazed—but little thought

What wealth the show to me had brought:

 

For oft, when on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude;

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

And dances with the daffodils.


 (I wandered lonely as cloud, William Wordsworth)

I will try to walk very slowly and follow the path I chose as I wish not to break away from my initial motivations. So let me backtrack and reassess my earlier statements before moving on. The Universe, I feel, is busy expressing itself while Consciousness stays a step behind.  If there is such a thing as cosmic consciousness, somehow we feel cut off. Omniscience is not a thing either as far as we can tell. Our individual or human consciousness suffers from amnesia. Information flows drip by drip as our consciousness rises and grows in its struggling attempt to reach the far edges of the Universe.

 

Magnetars are neutron stars powered by an extremely powerful magnetic field. Among hundreds of billions of stars in the Milky Way and the Magellanic Clouds, only 30 are currently known. Moreover, we do not know of any magnetar outside of that region of the sky. I wonder how many of them may be accounted for among the 2.6 million galaxies cataloged in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Their low number could be explained by the fact that only a small proportion of neutron stars form and live briefly as magnetars, and that they usually remain hidden except if they exhibit a strong magnetic field. 

 

Magnetar 3XMM J185246.6+003317 near Supernova remnant Kesteven 79 (ESA/XMM-Newton/ Ping Zhou, Nanjing University, China)

Magnetar 3XMM J185246.6+003317 near Supernova remnant Kesteven 79 (ESA/XMM-Newton/ Ping Zhou, Nanjing University, China)

 

Fast Radio Bursts are millisecond-duration impulses. They allow us to figure out what to make of the unseen matter. Out of the thirty magnetars, only five were observed to have exhibited transient radio pulsations. The most radio-luminous event from any galactic magnetar -- SGR 1935+2154 in the constellation of Vulpecula -- was detected in April and is considered the first-ever observational connection between magnetars and Fast Radio Bursts. A new uncatalogued source -- Swift J1818.0−1607 -- discovered in March by the Swift X-ray telescope belongs to the small group of young neutron stars with properties straddling those of rotationally and magnetically powered pulsars. Its magnetic field is 70 quadrillion times stronger than that of Earth. In 2008, SGR 0501+4516 became the first recorded outburst from the first new SGR discovered in a decade. SGR stands for ‘soft gamma-ray repeaters’. 

...the frequent short bursts are associated with small cracks in the neutron star crust, driven by magnetic diffusion, or, alternatively, with the sudden loss of magnetic equilibrium through the development of a tearing instability, while the giant flares would be linked to global rearrangements of the magnetic field in the neutron stars magnetosphere and interior.

The first outburst of the new magnetar candidate SGR 0501+4516

Time rules over our understanding and knowledge of the Laws of Nature. Our observations appear to follow a particular timeline. In the world of science, we wonder whether accidental discoveries obey to a preexisting order, and how to “make sense out of their occurrence” *?  Unanticipated discoveries shake the foundations of our fragile system of rules and conventions. Whether it is scientific experiments unveiling unanticipated results or astronomical instruments uncovering strange sightings and new findings, what we can’t predict plays an important role in scientific discoveries. 

 

I wish to know what astronomers who work with Hubble for the past thirty years would say looking back about unsought findings. I am not talking about the unexpected surface of Asteroid Bennu that will render the sampling by OSIRIS-REx all the more challenging. What I am talking about is when macroscopic objects with not yet determined properties, such as asteroids, comets, and magnetars appear, I wonder about their timely discovery. Why were those 30 magnetars the first ones to be spotted? Even if I imagined a scenario in which the Universe is a clueless thing that reveals itself by expressing itself, still there is ‘order’ in how it shows itself.  What is the nature of that order? What makes those events unfold before our eyes the way they do? Science is left to write a discourse on the method used by the Universe to manifest itself before our eyes and our debate around the fire under our simmering pot of fundamentals and concepts amounts to a discussion on the principal rules of the method at hand. 

 

If, as James Baldwin was quoted as saying, “the great force of history comes from the fact that... we are unconsciously controlled by it”, could it mean that every random discovery is part of a larger scheme of things meant to guide us through the maze of the unknowable?

Randomness

Blue mistflower

Blue mistflower

If the Universe were a macro-state, new comets and asteroids would be "hidden variables" coming into play, whose measurements are pieces of a puzzle. Consciousness is set to understand whether those encounters are the result of true randomness or the outcome of a deterministic pattern.

Realism

 

“An uncomfortable puzzle”, Robert Friedel writes, “is presented by the role of accident and chance”. Those unexpected ‘encounters’ may even be serendipitous.  First, when one is looking for one thing but finds another thing of value. Second, when one finds sought-for results, although by routes not logically deduced but luckily observed. Third, when one discovers things unsought and recognizes them for what they mean. The discovery of astronomical objects such as magnetars seems to fall into the third category. 

The quintessential joy of serendipitous science lies in its capacity to remind us that, as much as we know, we know only a fraction of what is to be known. As the accidents tell us and the sagacity to use them confirms, we do not even truly know what it is we do not know.

Robert Friedel

Some may not quite agree with the serendipitous nature of such events. According to Joseph Henry’s writings; the seeds of insights and discoveries “are constantly floating around us”, but they “only take root and germinate in minds well prepared to receive them”. Anecdotally his words are reminiscent of the story of the seeds and the Zen masters. Being well prepared and alert and taking advantage of relevant data and powerful instruments create the conditions for a serendipitous outcome. Discoveries tend to follow technical innovation, not theoretical predictions

 


Experience shows that when telescopes enter unexplored areas of observational phase space, they make unexpected discoveries, and these discoveries often outshine the specific goals for which the telescope was built.

The SKA Mid-frequency All-sky Continuum Survey: Discovering the unexpected and transforming radio-astronomy

 

Gilbert Murray, skeptical of the fact that an artistic creation could happen on the spur of the moment,  would object to Alexander by saying that preparation does not need to be ‘conscious’ and that the mind has by some process of thinking and feeling been prepared for it. What it sounds like is that in hindsight we may say that it is simply the outcome of favorable conditions but no one could foresee, even artists and poets, what the final shape of the creation would be. Allen Foster and Nigel Ford take the middle road by adding that the notion of serendipity arises from both conditions and strategies and should be regarded as both a purposive and a non‐purposive component of information seeking and related knowledge acquisition. It remains unclear to me to what extent and how ‘unconscious’ behavior plays a role in unsought findings.

Boneset

Boneset

 

Magnetars tell a story of stars’ life after death. What does it feel like to be a dead core of a once-massive star?  We’re told that we are made of star stuff.  Should we take comfort in knowing that there’s life after death?  Could we assume that we, too, will decay into another form of matter and energy?  Could that question be, in the back of my mind, the unconscious intent that drives me forward, softly patting me on the back and nudging me towards an answer? I heard that some thoughts are like comets, but others, I fear, are like tick trefoil seeds that you can’t get rid of. 

Is every step I make part of an already defined course of events or a truly random balancing act between non-locality and causality?

On the nature of metaphors

Ghostly ring around magnetar SGR 1900+14 (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Ghostly ring around magnetar SGR 1900+14 (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

 

The clouds were holding the Moon to prevent her from falling down. She played hide-and-seek, watched over by Jupiter shining above. She was round and foggy as if she were wrapped with a white cloth like the Veiled Nun. Words disappear and only ideas, I hope, stick. Odd shapes and exotic objects, comets ‘eccentric behavior, and magnetars’ unusual character are stuff poets are made of. What separates a scientist from a poet? Serendipity explains poets' urge to follow their intuition. They do not hesitate to embrace the influence of Providence, and to go against any method to reach their goals. I have been prone in the past to brush off unexpected occurrences in my life. I have learned lately to not dismiss them and keep my eyes open for serendipitous moments to occur. These days, I follow my intuition wherever it takes, pushing away boundaries. 

Golden rod

Golden rod

 

The structure of landscape is infinitesimal,

Like the structure of music,

seamless, invisible.

Even the rain has larger sutures.

What holds the landscape together, and what holds music together,

Is faith, it appears--faith of the eye, faith of the ear.

Nothing like that in language,

However, clouds chugging from west to east like blossoms

Blown by the wind.

April, and anything's possible.

 

Here is the story of Hsuan Tsang.

A Buddhist monk, he went from Xian to southern India

And back--on horseback, on camel-back, on elephant-back, and on

foot.

Ten thousand miles it took him, from 29 to 645,

Mountains and deserts,

In search of the Truth,

the heart of the heart of Reality,

The Law that would help him escape it,

And all its attendant and inescapable suffering.

And he found it.

 

These days, I look at things, not through them,

And sit down low, as far away from the sky as I can get.

The reef of the weeping cherry flourishes coral,

The neighbor's back porch light bulbs glow like anemones.

Squid-eyed Venus floats forth overhead.

This is the half hour, half-light, half-dark,

when everything starts to shine out,

And aphorisms skulk in the trees,

Their wings folded, their heads bowed.

 

Every true poem is a spark,

and aspires to the condition of the original fire

Arising out of the emptiness.

It is that same emptiness it wants to reignite.

It is that same engendering it wants to be re-engendered by.

Shooting stars.

April's identical,

celestial, wordless, burning down.

Its light is the light we commune by.

Its destination's our own, its hope is the hope we live with.

 

Wang Wei, on the other hand,

Before he was 30 years old bought his famous estate on the Wang River

Just east of the east end of the Southern Mountains,

and lived there,

Off and on, for the rest of his life.

He never travelled the landscape, but stayed inside it,

A part of nature himself, he thought.

And who would say no

To someone so bound up in solitude,

in failure, he thought, and suffering.

 

Afternoon sky the color of Cream of Wheat, a small

Dollop of butter hazily at the western edge.

Getting too old and lazy to write poems,

I watch the snowfall

From the apple trees.

Landscape, as Wang Wei says, softens the sharp edges of isolation.

 

(Body and Soul II, Charles Wright) 

 

Red lobelia

Red lobelia

 

* Robert K. Merton, The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity: A Study in Sociological Semantics 

Swamp milkweed

Swamp milkweed

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