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This is the third of a three-part exploration of the BBC documentary series The Code.
Part 1Part 2 – Part 3

This episode went beyond the other two, which focused primarily on the types of simple repeatable experiments du Sautoy showed at the start of the episode, with the metal ball. As life is more complex and as systems are never “closed” in the real world, this was an interesting extension of the seemingly irrefutable information discussed in Numbers and Shapes.

As I say, the natural world is more chaotic and therefore less predictable than simple individual equations can express. The trajectory of a ball or the movements of planets move in simpler systems than elements of our local environment. I was reminded of the difficulty in creating “perfect snowflakes” discussed in the previous episode. There are simply too many influences at play at any one time for things to be simple to predict – but that doesn’t change the fact underlying principles can be extrapolated from these imperfect individual examples. All are unique, all are moved by the wide range of factors at play in the wider environment – in the Force.

I was absolutely staggered that starling murmuration can be reduced to three basic rules, as shown in the programme. I’ve spent a lot of time watching starlings, both individually and flocking. I find them beautiful birds, intelligent and complex beyond other birds of their diminutive size. I’ve spent many evenings watching a flock murmurate (is that the word?) over Brighton’s dilapidated Old Pier. The way a starling flock moves feels very “Force-like” to me. I once thought that the shapes and “identity” the flock creates is most like my conception of a God – a God of this flock of starlings, perhaps. The many express something single, individual and more powerful than the single starlings which can easily be taken by predators. To see such a clear replication of this most mysterious flowing, fluid movement on a computer obeying only three simple rules was food for thought.

Another interesting and related idea was that we could learn how to better process crowd flow from more efficient creatures – ants and shoals of fish. We have much to learn from other creatures and the length of time evolution has worked to specialise means we’d be foolish to disregard something just because we’re snobbish in thinking humans are “above” other animals. All are creatures in the Force, all must live with the same sorts of conditions, the same environment. Anyone who has seen a shoal of fish can surely recognise even their small fish brains have a better understanding of mass transit than humans

The programme went on to speak of the apparent “rules” of human behaviour, patterns and tendencies which enable even the supposedly “free” choices of humans to be predicted to some extent, be that to win a game of rock paper scissors or to trap and capture a serial killer. We can surely all relate to that experience of ploughing familiar furrows, and behaving in somewhat repetitive, and therefore predictably patterned, ways.

I’ve spoken at length in my journal about my beliefs around cause and effect, that I think we are simply incapable of comprehending enough data to make meaningful predictions and we characterise this as “freedom”. The implied freedom of free will is essentially a random element. If I’m not choosing from a basis of evaluative, comparative or environmental factors, I’m simply choosing willy nilly. The programme had some fascinating insight into this, under the umbrella of Chaos.

When systems are so complex we can’t easily perceive patterns, we call them random. But they may just be massively complex, such as the examples of lemming populations or the weather. We understand the fundamental underlying principles underpinning both of these systems, but we’re unable to make meaningful predictions because even slight variation causes huge implications to the eventual outcome.

The Jedi Code contains the line “Chaos, yet harmony”. I believe this is a perfect embodiment of the wisdom around Chaos du Sautoy presents in The Code. We must make peace with the fact we don’t or can’t know everything, that things may seem chaotic. We must accept that we will always be surprised. We’re in the midst of the most complex system imaginable, the Force. We must use our discretion and focus on what we can meaningfully comprehend, still accepting there will always be something out there which can surprise us. This is why openness and flexibility are to be prioritised over rigid knowledge and certainty; we can’t know it all, so we’re best placed when we’re equipped to tackle whatever comes. “Ignorance, yet knowledge”.

A mind-blowing part of this episode was the section on the “Wisdom of the Crowd”. That the figure of jelly beans was just four off the mark was simply mind-boggling. I’m sure we’re all familiar with the ideas of collective intelligence, that a group of people should, in theory, be more intelligent than an average individual. But seeing it realised in quite such stark terms was a real surprise. The fact companies such as Google can use these huge samples of data to make predictions about the world shows that as a species, we are becoming more aware of these underlying patterns.

A lot of people are afraid of companies like Google and the range of data they have access to, but I feel this kind of technology is one way in which we are moving closer together, unifying as a species. Google is free. We can all benefit from the search service it provides, and a wide range of other free products it offers, things like Google Maps for example. It is making the world a smaller and more comprehensible place. As Jedi we believe all is one. If we can come together as a species to produce technology that allows us to make increasingly accurate predictions of the world around us, and if we can make as much data available to as many people as possible (in a format they can actually make sense of and use), I believe we’re moving in the right direction.

This is the second of a three-part exploration of the BBC documentary series The Code.
Part 1 – Part 2 – Part 3

Shapes are related to numbers (examined in the first programme) in that they express regular numerical patterns of angles. A shape is a numerical pattern made “real”, three-dimensional and interactive. This episode explored some fascinating concepts behind the fundamental, shape-based laws that make up our reality.

The section on honeycomb and bubbles was interesting as a first expression of this expression of numerical values in a real-world setting. The idea that 120 degree angles seem so ubiquitous in nature was interesting, as it seems to provide such a strong framework for “engineering” such as beehives. The explanation that this is simply the most efficient use of the material and requires the least energy only increases the wonder that these structures can be so beautiful and regular. The Force is built in patterns, as the programme went on to reveal later. These are some very distinct and familiar examples of that.

As a quick aside, I was astounded to learn that soap bubbles are thinner than a wavelength of light, and about 20,000 times thinner than a human hair. These beautiful insubstantial objects are something most of us have enjoyed since childhood, but to realise they are quite so ephemeral but resilient enough to drift through our world is a remarkable thing to consider.

So, the economy in nature described by the spherical formation of bubbles and the inherent “laziness” with which nature forms angles and shapes whilst trying to conserve energy and surface tension has real-world applications, such as the modelling of the Munich Olympic Stadium. It was fascinating to think such models could be created through such an elegant and simple method as soap bubbles and wet string, in the days before computer modelling made such calculations easy. The stadium itself was very beautiful and perhaps this is because it is a direct expression of a seemingly fundamental natural law; our eyes are attuned to their beauty, much like that found in the work of Jackson Pollock, discussed shortly.

One of the most interesting sections of the episode dealt with the five Platonic solids, five symmetrical objects Plato believed could describe the makeup of the entire universe. This is remarkable not just in that he was to an extent correct (because cell structures and the atomic structure of elements does indeed follow a similar conventional set of shape-based rules, something finally discovered over a thousand years after Plato’s postulation in the Timaeus), but that he would bhave reached his conclusion from a philosophical, a priori approach to reality. I’m struck time and again when learning about Plato by what a truly remarkable figure he was, and what a truly unique mind he had.

The difficulty in creating a “perfect” snowflake was another very interesting point in this programme. Because reality isn’t a vacuum, or a bubble, but a chaotic meeting-place of many opposing and competing forces, natural objects are created with a degree of “imprecision”, much like trying to draw a circle sat in the back of a moving car is likely to result in anything but a circle. How true of our path that what we think of as perfect in isolation is impractical int he real world; that what “perfection” looks like in a living system is something beautiful in its imperfection. As Jedi we live “in the world”. Our code can seem crystalline and perfect, objectively; however there is no objective view on reality and thus our code will be interpreted and applied differently given the situation.

I’d never heard the theory of Pollock’s paintings before, that they are beautiful specifically because they describe types of fractals, meaning smaller sections of the picture are indistinguishable from larger sections. I’ve had an interest in fractals since I was a child, watching a programme on my old Atari ST which modelled the Mandelbrot set and “fell” into it, on an endless loop. What then appeared a simple interesting optical illusion, I’ve since come to realise is a fundamental element of the structure of reality, just as De Sautoy describes here. How Pollock “tapped into” this fundamental structure is anyone’s guess, but the fact remains; his art is beautiful because it describes something structural about our reality, just as honeycomb and the Giant’s Causeway do.

Thinking back to the core of this lesson and the idea of coincidence, I think fractals provide an interesting model of how this could work. A fractal shows that one pattern can repeat itself endlessly, on smaller and smaller scales. Coincidence seems to describe a “structure” to reality in which certain things emerge seemingly from chaos. So perhaps this is the best model for coincidence; that irrespective of the scale we use, how wide or narrow a view we take, certain things will always emerge from the disorder life presents itself as. That although we sometimes have a hard time discerning it, beneath the confluence of forces and elements which make it almost impossible for the “perfect snowflake” to appear, there is indeed a perfect snowflake, describing 120 degree angles and an underlying fact of nature.

Further still, computer modelling shows that “fractalisation” of simple models can make realistic looking landscapes and terrain. This implies that at its heart, the very earth we stand on expresses some form of fractalisation; if a fractal model looks real, so too must reality look like a fractal model and express some of the same values. This suggests that at its core, all reality is an expression of simple shapes, repeated, scaled and miniaturised from an overarching structure.

Reality as ever smaller expressions of a large, single thing. Very Jedi. 

This is the first of a three-part exploration of the BBC documentary series The Code.
Part 1 – Part 2 – Part 3

I’ve recently taken a new job in software development, as a software tester. The way software works is that through a fundamental code representing a mathematical/logical structure, computers can create a visual, auditory and interactive environment in which users can perform tasks, receive information and generally “do stuff”. As such, the principles behind The Code are certainly ones which appeal to my everyday understanding of things. I come from a secular background in which theories and formulae underpinning the basic nature of reality are almost as untouchable as the ten commandments of Christians. The code described a view of reality I’ve held for most of my life, but explored in a much deeper and more insightful way, and one which was directly applicable to the Force.

One of the first things explored by the programme, the numerical basis of music, is something very close to my heart. I play several instruments but can’t read music – I’m self taught. This is a huge disadvantage as a musician, but I feel it is useful here; I have built up a strong understanding of the intervals required to make tonally and harmonically pleasing music. Western music is arranged around a repeating scale of 12 notes, and from these 12 music (almost) all Western music can be made. Music can express a huge range of things, from joy to sorrow and everything in between. Why can an arrangement of 12 notes do this?

One philosophical explanation for this is the concept of epiphenomenal qualia. These oddly named traits are the things which lie beyond the simple structure of something, and actually produce a response in us: For example, the colour red is a certain frequency of light, but red conjours up many more things than a simple frequency. It makes us think of passion, of anger, of roses and sunsets and a million different things. This is seemingly inherent in the space where the human mind meets that frequency of colour; and this is true also of music. Certain combinations or sequences of the 12 fundamental notes produce certain emotional responses or images. And underlying this is a relatively simple series of mathematical principles.

Moving on from this, the documentary talked about the medieval notion that harmony in music was proof certain combinations of notes were divine, and sent from God. I think this is a beautifully evocative approach to music for a Jedi to take: that in achieving perfect harmony, we are expressing something of the Force. It makes sense. The Force is all things, everything, the “one” thing which composes all reality. By bringing two or more disparate tonal elements together in harmony, we create something more than just two notes – we create something almost inexplicable. Harmony. This echoes the Jedi belief that harmony is fundamental to the nature of the Force; that we seek to create or assist movement towards harmony in all things.

The idea that knowing only 39 digits of pi allows us to accurately calculate a circle the size of the observable universe, and knowing that pi is inherently infinite in length, gives me a strange and beautiful feeling that it really does represent a fundamental “edge” of some universal rule. How much bigger than the observable universe then does this number we already know millions of digits of allow us to understand? We can work something out which could never exist – but if it were to be possible, we could know things about it. This is a transcendent type of knowledge expressing a fundamental rule.

Imaginary numbers were another fascinating idea, given that they are in use in things as established as radar tracking. These incalculable numbers can be interpreted in useful ways and produce effects not easily achieved without them. Again, I feel that they must therefore express some fundamental wisdom that we are actually yet to fully understand; the way ancient Britons aligned stone circles to solstices without truly understanding the turning of the earth and its elliptical orbit around the sun. They could use it in practice, just as we can use imaginary numbers. We feel the effect; we have the wisdom, but perhaps not the knowledge.

I was already familiar with the Golden Ratio (aka the Fibonacci Sequence) and its expression of the regularity of growth in nature. This is a beautiful image of parity in the Force, that a huge variety of distinct natural processes can be reflected by a single underlying principle. The same can be said of the section on gravity, that our increased numerical understanding of orbits and rules governing movement of planets and stars allow us to predict astronomical events in the future. Our understanding is not limited to everyday applications, but is enabling us to understand the largest and most alien things about the universe, because we are realising that fundamentally and at its core, everything in the universe corresponds to the same rules; everything is on some level fundamentally the same.

It’s this universality which was the most fascinating insight for me, or rather the connotations of it. Of course I was aware gravity is (so far as we can tell) a universal law, as is pi and the other elements discussed. But De Sautoy brought out the true wonder inherent in sketching the line of his code (our Force) through numbers. Numbers are the human way of understanding natural laws. They are relatively simple, even if they sometimes behave in strange or complex ways. They are a way of “codifying” the Force, making it explicable.

In terms of coincidence, I believe this episode lays down a fundamental principle of reality, that a few things can let us understand a lot. That our personal experiences can be expressions of wider and essentially simpler universal laws. That perhaps coincidence is best understood through Occam’s Razor, that the simplest explanation is the most likely: what’s more likely for the wider range of coincidences we all experience throughout our lives, that the universe is random and we are simply experiencing the average amount of coincidence; or that there’s something behind this seemingly chaotic world, certain rules or laws which whilst simple in nature have far-reaching and currently poorly understood implications? I’m not sure, as yet. I previously believed the former and still do, to an extent… but the latter has some real appeal when understood in the context of this episode. The world is bigger than we can understand. Knowing this, why can’t we conceive that a seemingly simplistic law or principle be guiding things? Mathematics suggests this is a common theme “behind” perceptible reality.

We are often told in Taoism that we can’t break the universe down into individual components without doing some violence to them, without losing sight of the whole. These distinct universal rules or laws take huge swathes of distinct objects or behaviours and lines them up into brief and clear ratios and equations; by understanding one thing, we can understand billions of things about our universe. Science (and mathematics) pushes on for a more unified theory, allowing the whole universe to be expressed into the simplest and most comprehensive way possible.

How about this for a numerical approximation of all reality?:

A searching and beautiful speech from that master thinker, Jiddu Krishnamurti.