Russell in Your Head-Roe (Re-Visited)

“Ordinary language is totally unsuited for expressing what physics really asserts, since the words of everyday life are not sufficiently abstract. Only mathematics and mathematical logic can say as little as the physicist means to say.” — Bertrand Russell, The Scientific Outlook (1931)

Previously pre-posted

Russell in Your Head-Roe — Bertrand Russell on mathematics
A Ladd Inane — Bertrand Russell on solipsism
Math Matters — Bertrand Russell on math and physics
Whip Poor Wilhelm — Bertrand Russell on Friedrich Nietzsche

Witch Switch

Below is one of the best album-covers I’ve ever seen. It’s a triumph of subtlety and simplicity:

Burning Witch, Crippled Lucifer (1998)

The American blackened doom sludge-sters Burning Witch used Sorgen / Sorrow (1894-5), a painting by the Norwegian painter Theodor Kittelsen (1857-1914), to conjure an atmosphere of despair and darkness. Here is the original painting, skilfully combining snow, darkness and despair:

Theodor Kittelsen, Sorgen (1894-95)

But while the painting and album are good examples of less-is-more, the album is also an example of less-and-more. Part of its power comes from the contrast between the simplicity of the wandering figure and the complexity of the scripts used for the band’s name and album title:

Crippled Lucifer (detail)

Usually images are more detailed than writing. Here it’s the reverse. And while you can easily read the writing, despite its complexity, you can’t “read” the figure, despite its simplicity. Kittelsen’s skilful simplicity raised questions that can’t be answered. Is the figure male or female? Why is it sorrowful? Where is it going?

Well, you can say where it’s going in one sense: it’s walking from left-to-right. And that made me wonder whether the album could have become even starker in its contrasts. If you’re literate in Norwegian or English, you naturally read images from left-to-right, because that’s the direction of the Roman alphabet. On the album, you read the figure and the writing in the same direction. They contrast starkly in other ways, but they don’t contrast there. So let’s try making them contrast there too. Compare these two versions of the cover:

Crippled Lucifer (original cover)

Crippled Lucifer (figure-and-snowscape mirrored)

I think there’s something emptier and more despairing in the mirrored figure, walking from right-to-left. On the original cover, the figure is in some sense walking into the future, despite the weight of sorrow it carries. As we read from left to right along a piece of writing, what’s to the left of our eye is the past, and what’s to the right is the future. The figure carries the same implication. And because the figure moving towards the highly-complex-but-perfectly-intelligible band-name-and-title, there’s almost an implication that its story will be told, even if it’s moving towards death or suicide.

When the image is mirrored, all that disappears. Moving from right-to-left, the figure seems to be walking into the past, not the future. It’s no longer near or moving towards the complexity-and-intelligibility of the band-name-and-title. It’s abandoning the world more strongly: there’s no hope, no future, no implication that its story will be told.

I think the same happens, though less strongly, when the original painting is contrasted with a mirrored version:

Sorrow (original)

Sorrow (mirrored)

The contrast is less stark because, unlike the album-cover, there’s no complex patch of writing in the painting and the figure is moving away from what writing there is: the artist’s signature in the bottom left. In the original, the figure is abandoning identity and intelligibility by moving away from the signature. That’s why I’ve removed the signature in the mirrored version of the painting. It would be anomalous on the right, whether or not it was mirror-reversed, and it would be anomalous if it stayed on the left.

Finally, here’s a photo of two musicians in Sunn O))), the band into which Burning Witch eventually evolved:

Sunn O))) in black robes

In the original, Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson are walking from right-to-left. Here’s a mirrored version for comparison:

Sunn O))) photo (mirrored)

I think the original photo has more power, because the robed figures are walking against the grain, as it were — against the direction in which our Roman-alphabet-conditioned eyes read a photo.

Don’t Do Dot…

It’s a mistake to think that Guardianese, the optimal dialect of keyly committed core components of the counter-cultural community, mandates optionizing on a permanent basis for the pretentious and polysyllabic. Yes, Guardianistas are addicted to phrases like “in terms of” and “prior to”, but they also like urgently throbbing monosyllables like “key”, “core” and “spike”.

These are unnatural words, taken from headlines, not from normal English. They reveal an important truth: simplicity can be pretentious too. The two aspects of Guardianese come together in phrases like “key indicator” and “core metric”. I would say that “vital sign” and “important statistic” are better and more natural English, but you can’t tell that by counting syllables.

And sometimes Guardianese doesn’t use any syllables at all…  Guardianistas also like the stylistic trick of trailing dots. I find it cheap and irritating, so I’m glad that one of my favourite writers thought the same long ago. In his essay “Stories I Have Tried to Write”, M.R. James (1862-1936) said this:

In parenthesis, many common objects may be made the vehicles of retribution, and where retribution is not called for, of malice. Be careful how you handle the packet you pick up in the carriage-drive, particularly if it contains nail parings and hair. Do not, in any case, bring it into the house. It may not be alone… (Dots are believed by many writers of our day to be a good substitute for effective writing. They are certainly an easy one. Let us have a few more……) (“Stories I Have Tried To Write”, 1929)

In short: Don’t do dot…

Elsewhere other-engageable:


Titus Graun
Reds under the Thread

Stories and Stars

A story is stranger than a star. Stronger too. What do I mean? I mean that the story has more secrets than a star and holds its secrets more tightly. A full scientific description of a star is easier than a full scientific description of a story. Stars are much more primitive, much closer to the fundamentals of the universe. They’re huge and impressive, but they’re relatively simple things: giant spheres of flaming gas. Mathematically speaking, they’re more compressible: you have to put fewer numbers into fewer formulae to model their behaviour. A universe with just stars in it isn’t very complex, as you would expect from the evolution of our own universe. There were stars in it long before there were stories.

A universe with stories in it, by contrast, is definitely complex. This is because stories depend on language and language is the scientific mother-lode, the most difficult and important problem of all. Or rather, the human brain is. The human brain understands a lot about stars, despite their distance, but relatively little about itself, despite brains being right on the spot. Consciousness is a tough nut to crack, for example. Perhaps it’s uncrackable. Language looks easier, but linguistics is still more like stamp-collecting than science. We can describe the structure of language in detail – use labels like “pluperfect subjunctive”, “synecdoche”, “bilabial fricative” and so on – but we don’t know how that structure is instantiated in the brain or where language came from. How did it evolve? How is it coded in the human genome? How does meaning get into and out of sounds and shapes, into and out of speech and writing? These are big, important and very interesting questions, but we’ve barely begun to answer them.

Distribution of dental fricatives and the O blood-group in Europe (from David Crystal's )

Distribution of dental fricatives and the O blood-group in Europe (from David Crystal’s Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language)

But certain things seem clear already. Language-genes must differ in important ways between different groups, influencing their linguistic skills and their preferences in phonetics and grammar. For example, there are some interesting correlations between blood-groups and use of dental fricatives in Europe. The invention of writing has exerted evolutionary pressures in Europe and Asia in ways it hasn’t in Africa, Australasia and the Americas. Glossogenetics, or the study of language and genes, will find important differences between races and within them, running parallel with differences in psychology and physiology. Language is a human universal, but that doesn’t mean one set of identical genes underlies the linguistic behaviour of all human groups. Skin, bones and blood are human universals too, but they differ between groups for genetic reasons.

Understanding the evolution and effects of these genetic differences is ultimately a mathematical exercise, and understanding language will be too. So will understanding the brain. For one thing, the brain must, at bottom, be a maths-engine or math-engine: a mechanism receiving, processing and sending information according to rules. But that’s a bit like saying fish are wet. Fish can’t escape water and human beings can’t escape mathematics. Nothing can: to exist is to stand in relation to other entities, to influence and be influenced by them, and mathematics is about that inter-play of entities. Or rather, that inter-play is Mathematics, with a big “M”, and nothing escapes it. Human beings have invented a way of modelling that fundamental micro- and macroscopic inter-play, which is mathematics with a small “m”. When they use this model, human beings can make mistakes. But when they do go wrong, they can do so in ways detectable to other human beings using the same model:

In 1853 William Shanks published his calculations of π to 707 decimal places. He used the same formula as [John] Machin and calculated in the process several logarithms to 137 decimal places, and the exact value of 2^721. A Victorian commentator asserted: “These tremendous stretches of calculation… prove more than the capacity of this or that computer for labor and accuracy; they show that there is in the community an increase in skill and courage…”

Augustus de Morgan thought he saw something else in Shanks’s labours. The digit 7 appeared suspiciously less often than the other digits, only 44 times against an average expected frequency of 61 for each digit. De Morgan calculated that the odds against such a low frequency were 45 to 1. De Morgan, or rather William Shanks, was wrong. In 1945, using a desk calculator, Ferguson found that Shanks had made an error; his calculation was wrong from place 528 onwards. Shanks, fortunately, was long dead. (The Penguin Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Numbers, 1986, David Wells, entry for π, pg. 51)

Unlike theology or politics, mathematics is not merely self-correcting, but multiply so: there are different routes to the same truths and different ways of testing a result. Science too is self-correcting and can test its results by different means, partly because science is a mathematical activity and partly because it is studying a mathematical artifact: the gigantic structure of space, matter and energy known as the Universe. Some scientists and philosophers have puzzled over what the physicist Eugene Wigner (1902-95) called “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences”. In his essay on the topic, Wigner tried to make two points:

The first point is that the enormous usefulness of mathematics in the natural sciences is something bordering on the mysterious and that there is no rational explanation for it. Second, it is just this uncanny usefulness of mathematical concepts that raises the question of the uniqueness of our physical theories. (Op. cit., in Communications in Pure and Applied Mathematics, vol. 13, No. I, February 1960)

I disagree with Wigner: it is not mysterious or uncanny and there is a rational explanation for it. The “effectiveness” of small-m maths for scientists is just as reasonable as the effectiveness of fins for fish or of wings for birds. The sea is water and the sky is air. The universe contains both sea and sky: and the universe is maths. Fins and wings are mechanisms that allow fish and birds to operate effectively in their water- and air-filled environments. Maths is a mechanism that allows scientists to operate effectively in their maths-filled environment. Scientists have, in a sense, evolved towards using maths just as fish and birds have evolved towards using fins and wings. Men have always used language to model the universe, but language is not “unreasonably effective” for understanding the universe. It isn’t effective at all.

It is effective, however, in manipulating and controlling other human beings, which explains its importance in politics and theology. In politics, language is used to manipulate; in science, language is used to explain. That is why mathematics is so important in science and so carefully avoided in politics. And in certain academic disciplines. But the paradox is that physics is much more intellectually demanding than, say, literary theory because the raw stuff of physics is actually much simpler than literature. To understand the paradox, imagine that two kinds of boulder are strewn on a plain. One kind is huge and made of black granite. The other kind is relatively small and made of chalk. Two tribes of academic live on the plain, one devoted to studying the black granite boulders, the other devoted to studying the chalk boulders.

The granite academics, being unable to lift or cut into their boulders, will have no need of physical strength or tool-making ability. Instead, they will justify their existence by sitting on their boulders and telling stories about them or describing their bumps and contours in minute detail. The chalk academics, by contrast, will be lifting and cutting into their boulders and will know far more about them. So the chalk academics will need physical strength and tool-making ability. In other words, physics, being inherently simpler than literature, is within the grasp of a sufficiently powerful human intellect in a way literature is not. Appreciating literature depends on intuition rather than intellect. And so strong intellects are able to lift and cut into the problems of physics as they aren’t able to lift and cut into the problems of literature, because the problems of literature depend on consciousness and on the hugely complex mechanisms of language, society and psychology.

Intuition is extremely powerful, but isn’t under conscious control like intellect and isn’t transparent to consciousness in the same way. In the fullest sense, it includes the senses, but who can control his own vision and hearing or understand how they turn the raw stuff of the sense-organs into the magic tapestry of conscious experience? Flickering nerve impulses create a world of sight, sound, scent, taste and touch and human beings are able to turn that world into the symbols of language, then extract it again from the symbols. This linguifaction is a far more complex process than the ignifaction that drives a star. At present it’s beyond the grasp of our intellects, so the people who study it don’t need and don’t build intellectual muscle in the way that physicists do.

Or one could say that literature is at a higher level of physics. In theory, it is ultimately and entirely reducible to physics, but the mathematics governing its emergence from physics are complex and not well-understood. It’s like the difference between a caterpillar and a butterfly. They are two aspects of one creature, but it’s difficult to understand how one becomes the other, as a caterpillar dissolves into chemical soup inside a chrysalis and turns into something entirely different in appearance and behaviour. Modelling the behaviour of a caterpillar is simpler than modelling the behaviour of a butterfly. A caterpillar’s brain has less to cope with than a butterfly’s. Caterpillars crawl and butterflies fly. Caterpillars eat and butterflies mate. And so on.

Stars can be compared to caterpillars, stories to butterflies. It’s easier to explain stars than to explain stories. And one of the things we don’t understand about stories is how we understand stories.

2:1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, 2:2 Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. 2:3 When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 2:4 And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. 2:5 And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, 2:6 And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel. 2:7 Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. 2:8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also. 2:9 When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. 2:10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. 2:11 And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh. – From The Gospel According to Saint Matthew.

Clock around the Rock

If you like minimalism, you should like binary. There is unsurpassable simplicity and elegance in the idea that any number can be reduced to a series of 1’s and 0’s. It’s unsurpassable because you can’t get any simpler: unless you use finger-counting, two symbols are the minimum possible. But with those two – a stark 1 and 0, true and false, yin and yang, sun and moon, black and white – you can conquer any number you please. 2 = 10[2]. 5 = 101. 100 = 1100100. 666 = 1010011010. 2013 = 11111011101. 9^9 = 387420489 = 10111000101111001000101001001. You can also perform any mathematics you please, from counting sheep to modelling the evolution of the universe.

Yin and Yang symbol

1 + 0 = ∞

But one disadvantage of binary, from the human point of view, is that numbers get long quickly: every doubling in size adds an extra digit. You can overcome that disadvantage using octal or hexadecimal, which compress blocks of binary into single digits, but those number systems need more symbols: eight and sixteen, as their names suggest. There’s an elegance there too, but binary goes masked, hiding its minimalist appeal beneath apparent complexity. It doesn’t need to wear a mask for computers, but human beings can appreciate bare binary too, even with our weak memories and easily tiring nervous systems. I especially like minimalist binary when it’s put to work on those most maximalist of numbers: the primes. You can compare integers, or whole numbers, to minerals. Some are like mica or shale, breaking readily into smaller parts, but primes are like granite or some other ultra-hard, resistant rock. In other words, some integers are easy to divide by other integers and some, like the primes, are not. Compare 256 with 257. 256 = 2^8, so it’s divisible by 128, 64, 32, 16, 8, 4, 2 and 1. 257 is a prime, so it’s divisible by nothing but itself and 1. Powers of two are easy to calculate and, in binary, very easy to represent:

2^0 = 1 = 1
2^1 = 2 = 10[2]
2^2 = 4 = 100
2^3 = 8 = 1000
2^4 = 16 = 10000
2^5 = 32 = 100000
2^6 = 64 = 1000000
2^7 = 128 = 10000000
2^8 = 256 = 100000000

Primes are the opposite: hard to calculate and usually hard to represent, whatever the base:

02 = 000010[2]
03 = 000011
05 = 000101
07 = 000111
11 = 001011
13 = 001101
17 = 010001
19 = 010011
23 = 010111
29 = 011101
31 = 011111
37 = 100101
41 = 101001
43 = 101011

Maximalist numbers, minimalist base: it’s a potent combination. But “brimes”, or binary primes, nearly all have one thing in common. Apart from 2, a special case, each brime must begin and end with 1. For the digits in-between, the God of Mathematics seems to be tossing a coin, putting 1 for heads, 0 for tails. But sometimes the coin will come up all heads or all tails: 127 = 1111111[2] and 257 = 100000001, for example. Brimes like that have a stark simplicity amid the jumble of 83 = 1010011[2], 113 = 1110001, 239 = 11101111, 251 = 11111011, 277 = 100010101, and so on. Brimes like 127 and 257 are also palindromes, or the same reading in both directions. But less simple brimes can be palindromes too:

73 = 1001001
107 = 1101011
313 = 100111001
443 = 110111011
1193 = 10010101001
1453 = 10110101101
1571 = 11000100011
1619 = 11001010011
1787 = 11011111011
1831 = 11100100111
1879 = 11101010111

But, whether they’re palindromes or not, all brimes except 2 begin and end with 1, so they can be represented as rings, like this:


Those twelve bits, or binary digits, actually represent the thirteen bits of 5227 = 1,010,001,101,011. Start at twelve o’clock (digit 1 of the prime) and count clockwise, adding 1’s and 0’s till you reach 12 o’clock again and add the final 1. Then you’ve clocked around the rock and created the granite of 5227, which can’t be divided by any integers but itself and 1. Another way to see the brime-ring is as an Ouroboros (pronounced “or-ROB-or-us”), a serpent or dragon biting its own tail, like this:

Alchemical Ouroboros

Alchemical Ouroboros (1478)

Dragon Ouroboros

Another alchemical Ouroboros (1599)

But you don’t have to start clocking around the rock at midday or midnight. Take the Ouroboprime of 5227 and start at eleven o’clock (digit 12 of the prime), adding 1’s and 0’s as you move clockwise. When you’ve clocked around the rock, you’ll have created the granite of 6709, another prime:


Other Ouroboprimes produce brimes both clockwise and anti-clockwise, like 47 = 101,111.


101,111 = 47
111,011 = 59
111,101 = 61


111,101 = 61
111,011 = 59
101,111 = 47

If you demand the clock-rocked brime produce distinct primes, you sometimes get more in one direction than the other. Here is 151 = 10,010,111:


10,010,111 = 151
11,100,101 = 229


11,101,001 = 233
11,010,011 = 211
10,100,111 = 167
10,011,101 = 157

The most productive brime I’ve discovered so far is 2,326,439 = 1,000,110,111,111,110,100,111[2], which produces fifteen distinct primes:

Clockwise (7 brimes)

1,000,110,111,111,110,100,111 = 2326439
1,100,011,011,111,111,010,011 = 3260371
1,110,100,111,000,110,111,111 = 3830207
1,111,101,001,110,001,101,111 = 4103279
1,111,110,100,111,000,110,111 = 4148791
1,111,111,010,011,100,011,011 = 4171547
1,101,111,111,101,001,110,001 = 3668593

Anti-Clockwise (8 brimes)

1,110,010,111,111,110,110,001 = 3768241
1,100,101,111,111,101,100,011 = 3342179
1,111,111,011,000,111,001,011 = 4174283
1,111,110,110,001,110,010,111 = 4154263
1,111,101,100,011,100,101,111 = 4114223
1,111,011,000,111,001,011,111 = 4034143
1,110,110,001,110,010,111,111 = 3873983
1,000,111,001,011,111,111,011 = 2332667

Appendix: Deciminimalist Primes

Some primes in base ten use only the two most basic symbols too. That is, primes like 11[10], 101[10], 10111[10] and 1011001[10] are composed of only 1’s and 0’s. Furthermore, when these numbers are read as binary instead, they are still prime: 11[2] = 3, 101[2] = 5, 10111[2] = 23 and 1011001[2] = 89. Here is an incomplete list of these deciminimalist primes:

11[10] = 1,011[2]; 11[2] = 3[10] is also prime.

101[10] = 1,100,101[2]; 101[2] = 5[10] is also prime.

10,111[10] = 10,011,101,111,111[2]; 10,111[2] = 23[10] is also prime.

101,111[10] = 11,000,101,011,110,111[2]; 101,111[2] = 47[10] is also prime.

1,011,001[10] = 11,110,110,110,100,111,001[2]; 1,011,001[2] = 89[10] is also prime.

1,100,101[10] = 100,001,100,100,101,000,101[2]; 1,100,101[2] = 101[10] is also prime.

10,010,101[10] = 100,110,001,011,110,111,110,101[2]; 10,010,101[2] = 149[10] is also prime.

10,011,101[10] = 100,110,001,100,000,111,011,101[2]; 10,011,101[2] = 157[10] is also prime.

10,100,011[10] = 100,110,100,001,110,100,101,011[2]; 10,100,011[2] = 163[10] is also prime.

10,101,101[10] = 100,110,100,010,000,101,101,101[2]; 10,101,101[2] = 173[10] is also prime.

10,110,011[10] = 100,110,100,100,010,000,111,011[2]; 10,110,011[2] = 179[10] is also prime.

10,111,001[10] = 100,110,100,100,100,000,011,001[2].

11,000,111[10] = 101,001,111,101,100,100,101,111[2]; 11,000,111[2] = 199[10] is also prime.

11,100,101[10] = 101,010,010,101,111,111,000,101[2]; 11,100,101[2] = 229[10] is also prime.

11,110,111[10] = 101,010,011,000,011,011,011,111[2].

11,111,101[10] = 101,010,011,000,101,010,111,101[2].

100,011,001[10] = 101,111,101,100,000,101,111,111,001[2]; 100,011,001[2] = 281[10] is also prime.

100,100,111[10] = 101,111,101,110,110,100,000,001,111[2].

100,111,001[10] = 101,111,101,111,001,001,010,011,001[2]; 100,111,001[2] = 313[10] is also prime.

101,001,001[10] = 110,000,001,010,010,011,100,101,001[2].

101,001,011[10] = 110,000,001,010,010,011,100,110,011[2]; 101,001,011[2] = 331[10] is also prime.

101,001,101[10] = 110,000,001,010,010,011,110,001,101[2].

101,100,011[10] = 110,000,001,101,010,100,111,101,011[2].

101,101,001[10] = 110,000,001,101,010,110,111,001,001[2].

101,101,111[10] = 110,000,001,101,010,111,000,110,111[2]; 101,101,111[2] = 367[10] is also prime.

101,110,111[10] = 110,000,001,101,101,000,101,011,111[2].

101,111,011[10] = 110,000,001,101,101,010,011,100,011[2]; 101,111,011[2] = 379[10] is also prime.

101,111,111[10] = 110,000,001,101,101,010,101,000,111[2]; 101,111,111[2] = 383[10] is also prime.

110,010,101[10] = 110,100,011,101,001,111,011,110,101[2].

110,100,101[10] = 110,100,011,111,111,111,010,000,101[2]; 110,100,101[2] = 421[10] is also prime.

110,101,001[10] = 110,100,100,000,000,001,000,001,001[2].

110,110,001[10] = 110,100,100,000,010,010,100,110,001[2]; 110,110,001[2] = 433[10] is also prime.

110,111,011[10] = 110,100,100,000,010,100,100,100,011[2]; 110,111,011[2] = 443[10] is also prime.