Announcing my new book

Lessons Learned from China

Relativity is Analogy, Quantum is Digital

Available in September

My new book Lessors learned from China will be released in about three months. It deals with a science, culture and aesthetics, but it should be easy to read. Below is the (pre-edited) Introduction, followed by the provisional Table of Content.



Relativity is Analog, Quantum is Digital




In the 1980s I worked in Japan as a stringer and Asia correspondent for several newspapers and one day I interviewed Kenji Ekuan, a prominent industrial designer who played a role in shaping Japanese design that attracted global attention in the 1980s. I had been struck by the fact that Japanese traditional aesthetics seemed to have an eminently “modern” quality, and I wanted to find out why this would be the case.

I asked Ekuan how he came to be an industrial designer. He explained that he grew up in Hiroshima as the son of an abbot, an administrator of a Buddhist temple. He was expected to succeed his father, but World War Two interfered. Early in the war Ekuan and his siblings had been moved to the countryside for safety. They returned home about a month after Hiroshima was struck by the atomic bomb and the war had ended.

 "When I returned to the city," he said, "I got a big shock. Street cars were laying upside down like helpless turtles, trees were blackened and bare, buildings completely destroyed. It was an ugly sight. So that is when I decided that I wanted to devote my life to making beautiful things. I asked my father if he would agree that I did not take over the temple and could go instead to Kyoto where I could study traditional beauty. And so my father said, ‘Kenji, you had better go there.’”

Ekuan not only told me an incredibly moving story, he also opened my eyes to an entirely new way of looking at Japan and life itself. In Japanese culture, aesthetics and morality and ethics are closely related. While studying the sources of Japanese aesthetics, I learned that China shared this same aesthetic impulse. One of the first books I came across in studying Chinese art history was the magnificent Principle of Chinese Painting by George Rowley.

In the introduction to his book, Rowley juxtaposed Indian, European and Chinese culture, and asked the question how the Chinese looked at life. “Here we meet a unique and surprising answer,” he wrote. “The Chinese way of looking at life was not primarily through religion, or philosophy, or science, but through art. Instead of religion, the Chinese preferred the art of living in the world; instead of rationalization, they indulged in poetic and imaginative thinking…”

In China I found the sources of Japanese aesthetics. In the tenth century, Japan virtually imported China’s entire cultural complex – its architecture and art as well as the Confucian social construct that was intermingled with Buddhism. Japan's first capitals, build in grid-like fashion, were small copies of China’s capitals. Buddhist temples, including the stupa-inspired pagodas, had no architectural connections to India but were based on Chinese modular architecture.

As I familiarized myself with the history of architecture and art, I realized that Chinese and Japanese art played a key role in the European Modernist revolution between the 1850s and 1920. French artists had discovered the Japanese wood block print (Ukio-e) in the late 1850s and used the print as inspiration to move away from the optical representation that had dominated European art since the Renaissance and the invention of linear perspective.

One of the few early modernists to understand the role of Japanese art at the start of the Modernist Revolution was Vincent van Gogh. In 1888 Van Gogh was living with his brother Theo in Paris, the city at the epicenter of the Modernist Revolution at the time, when he wrote a letter to his sister in Holland. Referring to the new “non-optical” pictorial language of the modernists he wrote: “You will understand the change in painting when you think for example of the colorful Japanese pictures one sees everywhere, landscapes and figures. Theo and I possess hundreds of these Japanese prints.”

The Japanese print, based on the Chinese prototype, relied on a projection system that came to be known in the West as axonometry. This graphic device, first developed by Chinese architects about 2000 years ago, was to East Asian art what linear perspective was to Western art – a graphic tool to create the illusion of depth or space on the two-dimensional picture plane.

The early modernists did not recognize the Chinese device, but in the 1920s, European modernist architects embraced axonometry when they developed the canons of modern architecture. “Space” rather than “form” became the building block of modern architecture. The crucial role of axonometry in the Modernist Revolution was a blind spot among art historians and little was known about its origin. My first book, The Corridor of Space, outlines the origin and development of axonometry in China and its role in the development of modern architecture.

While in Japan the thought occurred to me that Japanese aesthetics had a “digital” quality. It seemed impossible to understand or explain why, but during my study of art history in East and West I came across the remarkable encounter between the 17th century German mathematician Gottfried Leibniz and China. Leibniz invented the binary code, but after discovering the 64 hexagrams used in the Book of Changes (I Ching), Leibniz credited the ancient Chinese as the true inventors of the binary code.

I included the Leibniz story in The Corridor of Space but I was unable to place it into a wider context. Several authors, among them Fritjof Capra (The Tao of Physics) and Gary Zukav (The Dancing Wu Li Masters), had explored the similarity between quantum physics and Asian thought, but I failed to make the connection with my own story or the potential significance of Leibniz’s encounter with China.

This changed when I came across several articles discussing the distinction between continuous mathematics and discrete mathematics. Leibniz had developed the binary code as part of his attempt to develop a mechanical calculator to “mechanize” logical thought. He inspired the 19th century mathematician George Boole to invent his Boolean algebra of classes. The binary code and Boolean algebra are the key to understanding discrete mathematics.

I understood the binary code and Boolean algebra played a key role in the development of binary computing, but then learned that discrete mathematics is also used in quantum mechanics.

As I did in my study of axonometry, I started from scratch, looking into the history of mathematics from ancient Babylonia to Euclid, calculus and non-Euclidean geometry. I noticed most scientists from Newton to Einstein relied on continuous mathematics and the scientists who developed the so-called Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics resorted to discrete mathematics.

My study had come full circle. Whether continuous mathematics can be equated with the notion of “analog” and discrete mathematics with “digital” is a subjective and aesthetics issue, and thus open to interpretation. But Lessons Learned from China will try to show there is more to aesthetics than meets the eye, a lesson that first came home to me when I had the privilege of meeting Kenji Ekuan.


Table of Contents (provisional)


1 - Reconciling Opposites

2 - Particle Physics

3 - The Magnet

4 - European Ether and Chinese Chi

5 - Leibniz and China

6 - Guide to the Binary Universe

7 - Einstein and Ether

8 - Mechanical and Atomic Matter

9 - Physics and Metaphysics

10 - Space and Time

11 - Euclidean and Non-Euclidean

12 - Certainty and Uncertainty

13 - Analog and Digital

14 - Force and Equilibrium