Archive for the ‘Two Cultures’ category

Roberts, Race and Physics

December 23, 2015

I’ve been stewing for a couple of weeks about what was said by Fat Tony and Chief Justice Roberts during oral arguments on Fisher v. University of Texas, the latest attack on affirmative action.

Scalia’s hankering after the good old jurisprudence of Plessey v. Ferguson receive much notice, but I was (perhaps unsurprisingly, given my day job) at least as troubled by Roberts’ musing on the importance of diversity to a physics classroom.

Much of Roberts’ train of thought was no doubt shaped by prior jurisprudence on the criteria by which preferences could be accepted, but his specific choice of the physics classroom as a presumed space in which diversity would not show a particular benefit to the assembled students seemed to me to reflect a common and pernicious mistake, and error about both the practice of science and the ways diversity actually produces its effects.

So I wrote about it — and The Atlantic put it up on their site today.  Here’s a taste:

Roberts’s question about the “benefits” minorities might bring into a physics classroom suggests a classroom in which nothing outside physics may usefully impinge. That is, at best, a fatally narrow view. Roberts is thinking only about the answers, not the process of arriving at them. Actually doing science involves everything about the person doing the work—as, for example, the way Einstein turned his anger and pity for his father, a casualty of the rat race, into the goad that led him to so much of modern physics.

The piece turns on two stories: that told by Einstein in what he called “Notes for an Autobiography” and another, by the physicist Kaća Bradonjić, whose history I learned last week at a Story Collider performance.  She talked about childhood, war, exile and general relativity — and it was both wonderful, and the crystallizing narrative that captured, for me, the difference between thinking about physics (any inquiry) as a body of results, and physics (any inquiry) as it’s being done, contingent in time, space, and the individual minds and lives of the people doing it.


Anyway — y’all might enjoy, and if you’re interested, now you know where to go.

Image: Joseph Wright of Derby, The Orrery, c. 1766

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A Bit More Two Cultures Stuff: Arthur Waley/Heian Japan edition.

May 11, 2009

This is clearly the year for anniversaries.  There’s the Darwin stuff — his own bicentennial, and  The Origin’s 150th.  Then there is the telescope, being celebrated for its 400th anniversary in use as an astronomical tool.*  And then there is the one we just celebrated, the fiftieth anniversary of C.P. Snow’s Rede Lecture, titled “The Two Cultures,” delivered May 7, 1959.

I’ve been thinking about this one since I was asked to join a panel on “Science and/in Culture” at  Harvard’s “Common Cultures” meeting over May 7-8.  My talk was (mis)titled “Icons and Mentors,” and what I found as I put it together was a growing sense of dissatisfaction with the whole construct.  Snow himself provoked me with his famous disdain for those at a cocktail party who could not stump up the correct answer to his asking if they knew the second law of thermodynamics. **   But I think that there is more than irritation goading me; 25 years in the popularization of science business have sensitized me to “you ought to know this” approach to the problem.

Finally, doing some 3:00 a.m. insomnia reading a week or so ago, I came across a passage in an on-reflection-not-that-unlikely a source which captured some of my discomfort both with Snow’s formulation of his problem, and of its subsequent appropriation by those fighting all kinds of battles loosely construed as pitting a scientific worldview with a presumed un or anti-scientific one.   A most unlikely (seeming) source gave me comfort that my belief that icons — symbols, images — do indeed have great effect.

The work in question is Arthur Waley’s translation of and commentary on The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. By way of background Waley is perhaps a type specimen of the kind of literary mandarin that so worried Snow.  A student of classic Chinese and Japanese literature,  he was the premier translator to bring many of the major works in both languages into English versions intended to reach lay as well as specialist audiences.  His translations have gone out of style — he emphasized literary style over strict fidelity on most but not all projects — but they are powerful, and they were enormously influential from the twenties to the sixties.  He was by an odd coincidence a cousin of mine, though I never met him and was just eight when he died. (though that fact explains why I have a pretty good collection of his works ready to be reached for in the evil corners of a white night.)

The passage that caught my eye was one in which Waley was trying to give his audience — more literary mandarin types, presumably — some sense of the habits of mind in Sei Shonagon’s society.  He emphasized that tenth century Japan was a place, at least in its elite corners, concerned with surface appearance, expression.  But if the reader detected too close a resemblence to elite conversation in post World War I England, he or she would be mistaken:

The other aspects of their intellectual passivity – the absence of mathematics, science , philosophy (even such amateur speculation as amused the Romans was entirely unknown) – may not seem at first sight to constitute an important difference [from Waley’s Britain].  Scientists and philosophers, it is true, exist in modern Europe.  But to most of us their pronouncements are as unintelligible as the incantations of a Lama; we are mere drones, slumbering amid the clastter of thoughts and contrivances that we do not understand and could still less ever have created. If the existence of contemporary research had no influence on those capable of understanding it, we should indeed be in much the same position as the people of Heian.  But, strangely enough, something straggles through; ideas which we do not completely understand modify our perceptions and hence refashion our thoughts to such an extend that the society lady who said ‘Einstein means so much to me’ was expressing  a profound truth.

A profound truth that Waley, as unthermodynamical a character as ever lived, had no hesitation acknowledging.  This quote provided me with the start of a train of thought with which I’m not yet done.  On Friday, I talked of my growing sense of the importance of the making of icons of science.  Einstein is one, certainly.   And his significance in Waley’s time and to a great extent still is that even thought the physical sciences have too abstract, too complicated, too mathematical for lay audiences at least since the time of James Clerk Maxwell, Einstein exists as a constant talisman that this branch of science has in fact transformed our (one, popular) culture’s understanding of the power of science to make sense of the world.

Some of this in Einstein’s case is specifically a matter of timing, with his emergence right after the devastation of World War I.  Some of it, obviously lies with the acknowledged cosmic importance of is discoveries (a new theory of gravity, the first since Newton’s).  Some is down to the strangeness of his findings (the NY Times’s famous headline:  “Stars not where they’re supposed to be”), and the evocative, seemingly intelligible language in which his ideas were expressed (curved space, warped time, light has mass, there is a fourth dimension).  Some of it may be due simply to his camera-friendly looks, wild hair, benign smile and all.  But for all the particular reasons that Einstein became the public face of science when a Curie or a Bohr did not, the fact remains that an unbelievably potent cultural icon exists, the personification of human potential, of our capacity to penetrate deep mysteries.  It made science important, even if its specific practices and outcomes remained impenetrable.

There are obviously downsides to such enshrinement, and Einstein himself was clear on that point.  But from where I sit, or at least spoke a few days ago, it seems to me that I and many others and perhaps even C.P. Snow himself have been sweating a bit too hard over the culture wars.

Science does permeate popular culture, not always in ways that we love, but there it is still.  More important:  the enemies of reason, and they certainly exist, seem to me to have already surrendered at the moment they argue their cases in our language.  When ID’ers make claims of scientific legitimacy, e.g., they’ve already acknowledged the primacy of scientific argument as the arbiter of success or failure.  On that battleground, science wins.

And in that context, it may well be that the creation and renewal of icons of science — not limited to people, by any means — are as important a transformative agent in culture as any number of natural laws memorized for use at Oxbridge evening parties.

*It’s a bit of a tricky date, as the telescope was actually invented no later than 1608. Galileo certainly started to use his telescope to examine the night skies in 1609, but I don’t know that anyone is certain no one else had preceded him.  The real significant date, in my view, is 1610, when Galileo published Sidereus Nuncius, his account of his observations, including the nights of work that yielded the visual proof that Jupiter is attended by “planets” of its own — the four Galilean moons whose existence provided powerful support for the Copernican world view.  In science, an unpublished observation may as well not exist, so to my mind, telescopic astronomy begins at the moment Galileo announces its first compelling results to a wide audience.

**You can’t break even.  Or formally, “the entropy of an isolated system which is not in equilibrium will tend to increase over time, approaching a maximum value at equilibrium.”

Images:  Jeff Hester/P. Scowen, “Pillars of Creation” detail of the Eagle Nebula, Hubble Space Telescope, 1995

drawing by Kikuchi Yosai, “Sei Shonagon” 19th c.

Two Cultures notes — and a bit of American Class Mobility Explained

May 7, 2009

Here I am, really, really trying to get my head around a twenty minute talk I agreed to give at the Harvard/MIT sponsored Cultures in Common conference, one of the many triggered by the 50th anniversary of C. P. Snow’s Rede Lecture titled The Two Cultures.*  (The conference begins tonight with a star-studded gala, including comments by Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Tribe, with whom I have only one connection:  I am the proud owner of his childhood (judging from the handwriting) copy of the marvelous four volume work, The World of Mathematics.)

My talk, comes tomorrow in the panel discussing “Science and/in Culture.”  Asked for a title long before I had come up with thought one about what I might say, I blurted out “Icons and Mentors,” which seems to me to be delightfully capacious.  Think Jane Curtin — it’s both a floorwax and a dessert topping.  I offer it free and gratis to anyone in any field who can use it.  

I am feeling a bit contrarian these days, so I plan to suggest that Snow was both overstating the case within his own time and that construing our current difficulties — whatever they may be — in his OxBridge/high mandarin categories c. 1960 is probably not that instructive.  My icons will be, for over-determined reasons, Einstein and Newton…and as for mentors?  I’m still thinking.

All that is prologue to the real point of this post.  I always find as much as I can to do that is not writing before I actually force myself to get down to it.  Browsing as I do some favorite websites, I came across a comment — number 18 in the thread — by the proprietor of the invaluable Balloon Juice who revealed to me, at last, the secret code of American social class.  Take it away, John Cole:

I just completely don’t understand the silly attacks on stuff like mustard and arugula or whatever. I’m a backwoods hick in West Virginia who has lived the vast majority of my life in WV, and I have dijon mustard, yellow mustard, and two types of horseradish mustard in my fridge. That makes me an elitist? It was that easy?

Both the string theorist and the language poet can agree.  Mustard maketh man.**

*I’m sorry that I can’t go to the New York Academy event.  Many distinguished usual suspects there, including a fair contingent from my first science writing home, Discover magazine.  Among them, Carl Zimmer, whom I can thus here thank for a wonderful session yesterday talking to the MIT Advanced Science Writing Seminar about his past, science writing’s present, and all writers’ technologically mediated future. 

**Which suggests that C.P. Snow’s real problem may be tracked back to the dismal state of English cuisine in 1959.  Any society that accepts this as a delicacy (are you listening, Mum?) does not face a problem of two cultures, but of none.

Image:  Joseph Wright of Derby, “A Philosopher Giving that Lecture on the Orrery, in which a Lamp is put in place of the Sun,” c. 1766.