THE BLOG
05/26/2010 03:21 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Surfing the Universe with Dr. JoAnn

I'm checking out an entry in Wikipedia on Schrodinger's Equation, which remains unsolved. It's one of the most perplexing in quantum physics.

"The atomic orbitals of hydrogen like ions are solutions to the Schrodinger Equation in a spherically symmetric potential".

Wow. I've been invited to a Ball. A Big symmetric One. And it might have a clue how to solve this equation.

I drive almost into the Pacific Ocean as I enter the campus at UC Santa Barbara. I spot my destination immediately. It's got a billboard-sized free-form graphic consuming half the face of the building. For academia, it's out of character and a refreshing hit of serendipity. I enter Elings Hall and take the elevator to the second floor. The door opens into a dark corridor. A guy on the elevator confirms, "It's over there." My eyes have no time to adjust. I don't see anyone. Then the outline of a woman with familiar long hair walks toward me. Her face is barely visible.
"JoAnn, is that you?"

Yes, it is. My brain is about to be blown open by the immersive 3D digital reality of the AlloSphere.

When I saw a video of Dr. JoAnn Kuchera-Morin at the TED conference, and then in person at the Humanity Plus conference, I became an immediate follower. My first thought was, she's got answers. A musician and composer, JoAnn is not a predictable candidate for scientists, physicists, physicians, architects, psychologists, cosmologists, and nanotechnologists to feign over. They're waiting in line to meet her and upload the contents of their brains into her virtual 3D program, which leaves audiences with mouths gaping and eyes a mile wide.

Today I will experience some of JoAnn's brilliant visual art and musical composition. She could be mistaken for anyone. JoAnn doesn't carry around the compulsory hubris often expected of high profile PHD's. She's understaffed, driven too hard by her passion, and her Birkenstocks are wearing thin from pounding out hours in the AlloSphere.

JoAnn unlocks a door and we enter. The Dome consumes three stories of Elings Hall. Thirty feet in diameter, it's the largest scientific instrument of it's kind in the world.

A triangular steel grid forms this giant ball, and it resembles a geodesic dome. Anything with that appearance is instantly user-friendly to me. Buckminster Fuller was one of my architectural professors.

Knowing this, JoAnn first takes me to a bridge near the top of the Dome so I can inspect its structural beauty. Curved metal perforated panels span the voids with perfect seams, where they attach to the spherical steel strut frame. A special black paint coats the panels so they reflect the entire color spectrum in the dark with surreal state-of-the-art intensity.

In this giant near-to-anechoic chamber, Dr. JoAnn simulates daily the collective minds of geniuses and displays her brilliance as an inventor, musician, and artist.

The architect for the project, Robert Venturi, was perplexed by some of her requirements, but fulfilled all of them, which doesn't surprise me. JoAnn's passion is addictive. She just "knows" what will work. She's so persuasive you have no choice but to follow her.

As I do, I feel like Alice descending down a giant macrocosmic Bucky Ball of a rabbit hole.
JoAnn is surprisingly animated by my visit, considering she's battling the misery of the flu. An incurable inquisitionist, she seems more than willing to capture another tenacious brain to influence in her web of hyper-reality.

She takes me to another bridge in the middle of the Dome. I park my MacBook in small room filled with electronic equipment and a ganglion of cable. From a control panel out on the bridge, JoAnn picks up her favorite toy, a joystick, that ironically materializes the joy she's having creating Wonders of the Universe inside her Dome. A PC desktop pops up on the giant curved surface. She moves her cursor around and launches the show.

"Ok Ann, put on your 3D glasses."

Here we go. The rabbit hole is about to rocket me out the other end. I don't think I'll need popcorn for this one.

The desktop minimizes off to the side and a gigantic 3D brain, floating in space like a hologram, consumes the Dome and my entire visual field. Knowing I'm an architect and I write about brain science, JoAnn is hitting me right where I live.

She rotates the brain a little, inputs some data, and we zoom into the right side of the prefrontal cortex like a couple Nanobot Journalists on a mission. Collective bits of color and shape are flying all over like a flock of migrant birds in a hurricane. Then they critical mass and return like bees back to the hive of a neuron.

"The grid you see is one of the horizontal slices taken through the brain of an Architect we put in a fMRI. We're also simulating the effects of pharmaceuticals, genetics, and the brain's own chemistry this way. We can see how thoughts travel based on emotion and imagery."
Wow, again.

I know an fMRI literally reconstructs imagination in the brain, uploading to a computer program that crunches data by mapping changes in cerebral blood flow in the visual cortex. Now data has become a very big show. Am I also watching how my own brain visualizes?

"While he was in there we showed him visual images and then watched his brain light up. This is real-time simulation."

No kidding. Now I'm visualizing Bucky in there, a computer uploading his brain with all 12 last-century phonebook-sized volumes of his legendary Dymaxion treatise, the World Design Science Decade.

JoAnn tweaks with her joystick. All the shapes representing anything imaginable in the brain take off again as she describes what's happening. She's on verbal autopilot. Words spill out of her non-stop, creating seamless and precise descriptions. How can I interrupt her now? I've got a million questions as I fly high on my own internally launched candy-store frenzy . . .

"Go HERE! Now over to the LEFT side! WHOA, back up a little . . . where's the amygdala? Add some ENDORPHINS to the CEREBELLUM!"

Like a bad cough in the audience, I would have ruined her performance.
Then her computer crashes. The desktop freezes.

"This is a new one", she says. After spending some time trying to fix it and being overly apologetic, she calls her engineer to the bridge. JoAnn must be melting down the AlloSphere computer system with her data input, yet again.

"We need a supercomputer. There's one upstairs, and I'm trying to get access to it."
Well, yeah, I'm thinking. Give it to her, like NOW. I suggest Wolfram Alpha might help her crunch more data as her engineer successfully launches us again. She prepares her next event.
"Here's Schrodinger."

JoAnn produces his famous unsolved paradox on her minimized desktop. I'm prepared for another Avatar 3D experience, but when a massive hydrogen like atom amped up on computational simulation explodes in my face, I'm thrown into full-body 4D immersion. As JoAnn zooms in, out, around, and through, accelerating it all over the Dome, an expanding symmetry of color and shape comes right at me.

Then it expands right through my head. I step back to get out of the way, but all I do is bump into the back wall. I step to the side, then lose my balance. The only way to get it back is to cross my eyes. This turns the quantum takeover into two stable images in front of me. I feel like I'm in a big round box, a paradox in itself. I think I may have bifurcated into two branched universes, not knowing where my body is and where it isn't.

"I had one famous physicist in here, very skeptical. I ran my program of a hydrogen-like atom with various combinations of wave functioning equations. He couldn't believe it was so complicated and behaved in so many ways."

This makes me smile, knowing this has never been seen by the human eye. If I'd been an atom on the wall, I would have given anything to see the expression on his face.

I look at the equations again displayed on JoAnn's desktop that have stumped the best of them. Schrodinger's are analytically unsolved, but they're now growing and organically changing seamlessly into brilliant visual replications of his theory all through me.

Two more visitors arrive on the bridge for their appointment with JoAnn. She introduces me to a student and a music professor checking out the progress of his collaboration with her. The show goes on all around me.

Then they leave in the usual state of dropped jaws and big eyes. JoAnn returns to Schrodinger, grins, and reminds me to put my 3D glasses back on. She seems to be enjoying my 4 year-old Wonder Face as I dance around, this close to out-of-motor-control.

"I think I can convince them that visualizing this is important."

Well, yeah, I think again. I know she's on to something, and it's much bigger than her Dome. This could convince there really are multiple dimensions.

Schrodinger is understood by few. A quantum physicist, he won the Nobel Prize in 1933 for his paradox of "many worlds". He invented an interesting scenario in an attempt to explain his theory.

A cat is sealed up in a box with a tiny radioactive substance. If over time a radioactive atom decays, it's detected, poison released, and results in a dead cat. But it's also probable no atom decays and the cat is still alive, making it probable the cat is either dead or alive regardless of the behavior of an atom.

What if the cat exists in both states? This is also probable, based on the measurable behavior of atomic particles that constitute all living matter. To exist in both states, a "branch point" event occurs, where the cat becomes two and assumes existence in different distinct dimensions of the Universe, being dead and alive simultaneously. If the box is opened, regardless of what's discovered, both are equally real.

Solving Schrodinger's time-dependent and time-independent states of quantum theory would validate how being alive and dead at the same time could occur. As my grandmother might say, a crazy idea like this is "far-fetched", as in, you've got to go way out there to get it, a good reason why the cat-in-the-box is a challenge to wrap a brain around.

Schrodinger's probability does align with what I know about Russian philosopher P.D. Ouspenky's "shock interval", Wilhelm Reich's Orgone Theory, and Garrett Lisi's E8 Theory.

I've got a hunch. Our curiosity may not kill the cat. Refusing to be squashed by skepticism, our curiosity could manifest proof of Schrodinger's equation visually. Then the cat also lives. If missing particles explode out of the Large Hadron Collider completing E8 theory, we'll also have an Exceptional Theory of Everything.

How could we possibly arrive at all this? How about transmuting analytical data into visually symmetrical imagery and watch what happens?

When I Wiki-surfed Schrodinger, some interesting terms represented his equations. Wave, amplitude, oscillation, frequency . . these are words that coincidentally describe the sound and behavior of music. JoAnn's fascination with the structure of musical composition was running in the background as Guitar Hero and Rock Band launched the modern rhythm gaming craze.

Eventually, the inventors designed joystick controllers shaped like musical instruments. The names of the games and inventors are also interesting, like Frequency, Amplitude, Harmonix...

I like the frequencies of JoAnn's simulated music that back-drops her 3D shows. They sound like sonar recordings of whales, or the Cobe Satellite bringing back sounds of the Universe.

I don't want to leave, but JoAnn's flu-fight, upcoming conferences demanding her presence, plus another typical day indulging persistent fans, has worn her down to what's left of her Birkenstocks. Guilt sets in, and I plan a quick, but grateful exit.

Still, she's having a hard time powering down the Dome and leaving herself. I honorably body-coax her out and get her to lock the door as she continues to talk.

She always has so much more to say . . .

I'm hoping someone will find attractive bait to get her out of that Dome daily so we don't lose her in there forever. I'm also thinking that would be ok with JoAnn, and she would want to take a bunch of her friends with her. Maybe that's her next simulation . . .

I gush, get profuse, and diminish myself in her presence, as I walk toward the elevator that will soon de-elevate me. Like an SNL bit, I am not worthy. I say goodbye to JoAnn, my arm raised in an arc and headed for her slumped shoulders bearing the weight of her passion and the flu.
"Don't hug me. You'll get it."

No worries. She can infect me with whatever she wants. I do it anyway, and then blur the fuzzy moment with a semi-trite evaluation.

"You're not part of this world JoAnn. You are it."

Finally, she doesn't know what to say.

I walk back out into the setting sun and face the disappointing visual of a parking structure with my car in it. I read emails, check messages, and drive back out into Real Reality.

Even with a Pacific Sunset Moment, I can't get my head out of the AlloSphere.

Anybody got a contact for the Nobel Laureate Nominating Committee in Sweden?