My weblog ELECTRON BLUE, which concentrated on science and mathematics, ran from 2004-2008. It is no longer being updated. My current blog, which is more art-related, is here.

Thu, 16 Feb, 2006

Pattern Recognition and the Zahir

One of my favorite authors is Jorge Luis Borges, whose short stories have inspired me for decades. One of my favorite stories of his is The Zahir, which could be described as an intellectual horror story. It is a tale of obsession, mysticism, and madness, which arises from a banal detail of life. The story is told by a man who is captivated and eventually driven insane by an object called a Zahir. For the definition of this, I quote from the story:

"…the people (in Muslim territories) use it to signify "beings or things which possess the terrible property of being unforgettable, and whose image finally drives one mad.…whoever looked once upon it could thereafter think of nothing else.…"

The Zahir does not have to be something large or important. It can be totally insignificant, until it somehow acquires the Zahir property. There can be only one Zahir in the world at any given time, but it mysteriously embodies itself in one thing after another. In the Borges story, the Zahir is "an ordinary coin worth twenty centavos." The end of the story is quietly terrifying, as the narrator realizes that he will be reduced to a helpless and terminal state of dementia, as his mind is totally taken over by thoughts about the Zahir coin.

I have an unpleasant overabundance of what is called the faculty of "pattern recognition." This faculty is inborn in human beings as an evolutionary advantage; we are told by scientists that our primeval ancestors benefited from being able to make out patterns that signified threat, such as a leopard hidden in the leaves that they could then run away from. Most people exercise their pattern recognition skills in pastimes such as "find-the-word" puzzles, or knitting, or video-games. Scientific and mathematical types probably have a higher level of pattern-seeking mentality, which may lead them to ask questions about features of the universe that other less observant people might not notice. Art also demands a high level of pattern recognition, at least some kinds of art do. For instance, pattern-seeking scientists have attempted to prove that the seemingly chaotic spatter-paintings of Jackson Pollock followed a "fractal" multiplication pattern rather than being just conglomerations of randomly splattered paint. The article is here and you can judge for yourself whether the scientists have decoded the artist. (Some of the links in the article may not work, as it is from 1999.)

I am always trying to see patterns in things. This leads me into social problems as well as that ongoing sin of mine, "sweeping generalizations." What else are those generalizations but pattern recognitions? The trouble is, the patterns may not exist. I may be seeing a relationship between things that occur together but are really uncorrelated. Skeptical scientist types say that this common misperception leads to acceptance of "wrong" beliefs in paranormal powers, astrology, and ultimately any theistic religion, all of which are unacceptable to these warriors of rationalism.

There are things in my life that have some of the properties of a Zahir, though thankfully they are not the all-consuming kind that Borges wrote about. They are little insignificant details of life that simply will not leave my memory. I can still recall a pair of emerald green rain boots on a woman on a rainy street in Williamstown, Massachusetts in the summer of 1972. And there was an infinity sign, or a number 8 (depending on your direction), scratched into a brick in the sidewalk of Oxford Street in Cambridge, Mass. near the Harvard Science Center.

There is a Zahir-like object on a tile in my aunt's bathroom. I knew it in my youth, and it is still there to this day. The tiles in that upstairs bathroom are a pale yellow, speckled with a myriad of tiny black specks which resemble a negative astronomical photograph of a starfield. There are no galaxies there, just tiny black star-dots, seemingly at random. While occupied on the seat in that bathroom, I had ample time to study those tiles. Was every tile the same, or was the sprinkling of specks different for each tile? My visual ability told me that every tile was different. Each tile was, as it were, a separate universe, or at least a different view of one universe. But on one tile, close by the window, I found one particle that was slightly isolated from the rest of them. It had, as it were, a small empty area around it which set it off from the other specks, barely noticeable unless you were looking at it closely from a seated position.

Were there others like it? I studied those tiles day after day, visit after visit, hoping to find another special speck. But this one stood alone. I pointed it out to my cousin, who grew up using that bathroom; I wonder whether he could find it on his next visit home. I certainly could. Let the tiny black spots on the bathroom tiles represent the stars. This one is set apart by an extra millimeter from the others, drawing my attention in with a powerful attraction, even though it may be no bigger than the period you see after this sentence. What might it be? Is it possible that this represents a black hole, a once-blazing star collapsed into itself so that its gravity is so powerful that not even light can escape? Astrophysicists observe that black holes do indeed clear an area around themselves as they vacuum material inwards. The black hole pulls its surroundings into itself, freezes all perceptions on an "event horizon" at its outer limit. Could Borges' Zahir be a form of black hole, in the realm of mind rather than gravity, something that your thoughts orbit round and round before annihilating themselves down its drain? Is there a black hole on a bathroom tile in my aunt's house in Massachusetts? More likely, my overactive pattern recognition has once again betrayed me, leading me to behold a Singularity where other folk would see only a meaningless scatter of specks.

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