The Quantum Pontiff

Dewy Eyed Pastoralism

Today is the 149th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. I’m probably just suffering from a bout of dewy eyed pastoralism, but when was the last time a book which was readable by the general public was also a major work of science? (Not Here That’s For Sure)


And you will say “but science it is so complicated nowadays!” and “but science is so big these days!” And you will say “only smart people can understand string theory!” and “there is so very much that one must learn in order to even understand today’s science!”

So then you will go back to your little corner of the scientific world, and hack out the four pages for your submission to Physical Review Letters. You will use the proper jargon and site the proper sources (where by “proper” here we mean: “most likely to get your paper accepted.”) Your publication count will rise and the halls of academia will whisk you upward into the far reaches of the ivory tower. You will climb this tower and find yourself a small padded room labeled “tenure.” Comfortably there you will look down over the small steps you have taken, and wonder, “why am I here?” and “wow am I exhausted!”

A scientific life lived in short breaths, one publication at a time, until it’s too late, and no one can even understand what you are doing.

It is with some irony that I note that throughout his life, Charles Darwin had health problems, largely attributed the pressure he felt in his own “academic” life.

Comments

  1. #1 David
    November 24, 2008

    I work with a former employee of “… That’s For Sure” guy. He has dim things to say about him. Not that he’s dumb, but, you know, he’s not as brilliant as he would adore for you to believe him to be.

  2. #2 John Sidles
    November 24, 2008

    Dave asks: When was the last time a book which was readable by the general public was also a major work of science?

    In the immortally foolish phrase of Monty Python and the Holy Grail) character Sir Robin: Thaaat’s eeaaaasy!.

    The answer: Wernher von Braun’s 1953 The Mars Project and its 1958 followup First Men to the Moon.

    Nowadays, what people remember about these two books is their sense of optimism, wonder, and adventure (especially as the adventure and wonder were conveyed by the fabulous paintings by Charles Bonestell).

    But von Braun’s two books had a solid science and engineering component too (details here) … which few read … but those few readers were highly influential (they included von Neumann) … and so it was vitally important that these scientific and engineering details *did* exist.

    My own view is that similar opportunities exist today, particularly in the quantum domain. Because every household includes at least one quantum device … a hot, wet, noisy quantum device … namely, yourself!

    And even your little finger contains 10X times as many atoms as there are stars in the observable universe … with each cell containing gigabytes of DNA-encoded information … that dates back in time almost as far as the cosmic microwave background. Who could ask for richer opportunities of exploration?

    Observing and simulating this bio-verse will require quantum mathematical algorithms, sensing instrumentation, and computing platforms that are comparably sophisticated to von Braun’s rockets … but the cost will be far less … the accessibility far greater … and the pay-offs more valuable.

    That’s one person’s (optimistic) opinion, anyway.

  3. #3 Jonathan Vos Post
    November 24, 2008

    Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems

    Galileo Galilei

    [translated from Italian. Note that he did NOT write this in Latin, but in vernacular, for the masses]

    THE FIRST DAY

    INTERLOCUTORS

    SALVIATI, SAGRFDO, AND SIIMPLICIO

    SALVIATI. Yesterday we resolved to meet today and discuss as clearly and in as much detail as possible the character and the efficacy of those laws of nature which up to the present have been put forth by the partisans of the Aristotelian and Ptolemaic position on the one hand, and by the followers of the Copemican system on the other. Since Copernicus places the earth among the movable heavenly bodies, making it a globe like a planet, we may well begin our discussion by examining the Peripatetic steps in arguing the impossibility of that hypothesis; what they are, and how great is their force and effect. For this it is necessary to introduce into nature two substances which differ essentially. These are the celestial and the elemental, the former being invariant and eternalo the latter, temporary and destructible. This argument Aristotle treats in his book De Caelo, introducing it with some discourses dependent upon certain general assumptions, and afterwards confirming it by experiments and specific demonstrations. Following the same method, I shall first propound, and then freely speak my opinion, submitting myself to your criticisms — particularly those of Simplicio, that stout champion and defender of Aristotelian doctrines.

    The first step in the Peripatetic arguments is Aristotle’s proof of the completeness and perfection of the world. For, he tells us, it is not a mere line, nor a bare surface, but a body having length, breadth, and depth. Since there are only these three dimensions, the world, having these, has them all, and, having the Whole, is perfect. To be sure, I much wish that Aristotle had proved to me by rigorous deductions that simple length constitutes the dimension which we call a line, which by the addition of breadth becomes a surface; that by further adding altitude or depth to this there results a body, and that after these three dimensions there is no passing farther — so that by these three alone, completeness, or, so to speak, wholeness is concluded. Especially since he might have done so very plainly and speedily.

    SIMP. What about the elegant demonstrations in the second, third, and fourth texts, after the definition of “continuous”? Is it not there first proved that there are no more than three dimensions, since Three is everything, and everywhere? And is this not confirmed by the doctrine and authority of the Pythagoreans, who say that all things are determined by three — beginning, middle, and end — which is the number of the Whole? Also, why leave out another of his reasons; namely, that this number is used, as if by a law of nature, in sacrifices to the gods? Furthermore, is it not dictated by nature that we attribute the title of “all” to those things that are three, and not less? For two are called “both,” and one does not say “all” unless there are three.

    You have all this doctrine in the second text. Afterwards, in the third we read, ad pleniorem Scientiam, (note: For greater knowledge.) that All, and Whole, and Perfect are formally one and the same; and that therefore among figures only the solid is complete. For it alone is determined by three, which is All; and, being divisible in three ways, it is divisible in every possible way. Of the other figures, one is divisible in one way, and the other in two, because they have their divisibility and their continuity according to the number of dimensions allotted to them. Thus one figure is continuous in one way, the other in two; but the third, namely the solid, is so in every way.

    Moreover, in the fourth text, after some other doctrines, does he not clinch the matter with another proof? To wit: a transition is made only according to some defect; thus there is a transition in passing from the line to the surface, because the line is lacking in breadth. But it is impossible for the perfect to lack anything, being complete in every way; therefore there is no transition beyond the solid or body to any other figure.

    Do you not think that in all these places he has sufficiently proved that there is no passing beyond the three dimensions, length, breadth, and thickness; and that therefore the body, or solid, which has them all, is perfect?

    [truncated]

  4. #4 John Sidles
    November 24, 2008

    Hmmmm … on a totally different channel, another candidate is Marvin Minsky’s 1988 book Society of Mind … which was of the first books ever produced on a Mac, by the way! :)

    My guess is, folks will propose quite a few candidates. So it *can* be done … but it’s definitely not easy.

  5. #5 Ian Durham
    November 24, 2008

    For several years now I’ve been slowly working on an espionage novel that both seeks to explain aspects of physics (particularly quantum information) to the layperson while also introducing a newish idea here and there. I scrapped the original manuscript recently and started again from scratch (for the most part) but we’ll see how it comes out. It may turn out to be complete trash, but hey, at least I tried.

  6. #6 milkshake
    November 25, 2008

    well there is this Nobel-caliber Powerpoint presentation from Al Gore…(ducking for cover)

  7. #7 Jonathan Vos Post
    November 25, 2008

    Marvin Minsky and I had been arguing since about 1973 or 1974 about Poetry and its relationship with Science. He said that “Poets are people who have nothing toi say, so they disguise it with metaphor, and rhyme.”
    I kept advancing new arguments, based on my double B.S. in Math and English Lit from Caltech, The History of Science Poetry, and my fierce opposition to C. P. Snow’s “The Two Cultures” theory. Minsky began to soften his position.

    He seemed interested in the strategy of Poul Anderson (who, by the way, wanted to be an Astrophysicist) of writing poems, and embedding them in novels, because the payment per word for a novel was at least an order of magnitude more than the payment per word for a stand-alone poem.

    Finally, Marvin Minsky’s 1988 book Society of Mind, contained a chapter that was typeset entirely as a poem. The editor forced it to be re-set as prose. But it is in the book, and he challenges us to decide WHICH chapter…

  8. #8 David
    November 25, 2008

    You know, JVP, there isn’t a very good contact address for you at magicdragon. jay-pee-oh-ess-tee@earthlink gets kicked back.

  9. #9 John Sidles
    November 25, 2008

    Our QSE Group meeting turned up the following suggestions (many from John Jacky):

    Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring
    David Deutsch’s Fabric of Reality
    Ed Wilson’s Sociology: the New Synthesis
    Frans de Waal’s Chimpanzee Politics
    Sigmund Freud’s Theory of Dreams
    Jared Diamond’s Collapse
    Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene

    Arguably, what these works have in common is that each conveys a consilient narrative about mathematics and science … a narrative that integrates many theorems, experiments, observations, and technologies.

    Which is a high-order scientific achievement, indeed!

  10. #10 John Sidles
    November 25, 2008

    Hmmm … Dave, I’ll add another very important example … Spinoza’s 1670 Tractatus Theologico-Politicus , which put forth the then-radical (wholly scientific) notion that sacred texts were written by ordinary human beings.

    Indeed, modern science could scarcely have been born without this key contribution.

    Among the “general public” who read Spinoza’s works was a layman named Thomas Jefferson … himself no slouch as a thinker. :)

  11. #11 Jonathan Vos Post
    November 25, 2008

    The Great Science Writers hit the nail on the head again and again: T. H. Huxley, H. G. Wells, Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, Lewis Thomas, Stephen W. Hawking, Steven Pinker, Brian Greene, Antonio Damasio, Michio Kaku, David Bohm, Micheal Talbot, Marvin Minsky, James Gleick, Timothy Ferris, James Burke, Lisa Randall, and others (i leave them out by carelessness and not contempt). There are notable one-shots such as “A Beautiful Mind” by Sylvia Nasar. Oddly, the National Association of Science Writers refused my credentials, saying that I was merely a scientist, science fiction author, and tech writer.

    David: It’s curious how shabbily I and my web readers have been treated by EarthLink, despite the number of eyeballs reached by the site hosted on their servers, and the fact that I was in their management.

    “You know, JVP, there isn’t a very good contact address for you at magicdragon. jay-pee-oh-ess-tee@earthlink gets kicked back.” I shifted to Hotmail and Yahoo email after EarthLink wiped out the archive of all my 15,000 or so emails, and refused to restore them from back-up, even when I listed the schedule of their truckloads of magnetic media (and the time) so used. Yahoo spontaneously degraded spam-filtering, and their email to me about this was blocked by their own spam filters. It took a week for me to be assured that they were not phishers, and then, though I’d deposited enough money to restore the spam-filtering, they claimed that too much time had elapsed. So I am best reached through jay-vee-oh-ess-pee-oh-ess-tee-numeralThree-at-gmail dot commercial.

    “Thomas Jefferson … himself no slouch as a thinker” — and scientist, and writer!

    One reason that I built my multimegaword “Timeline” was to list the books that an educated man or woman would read in any given decade, whether or not today they would be classified as Science or as Philosophy or as Fiction or as Poetry.

    Note on My Hermeneutics of the Classroom

    Since I am both a scientist and a writer/editor/publisher, I am concerned with coordinating the scientific method and the many recent breakthroughs in Physics and Astronomy and the Genomics revolution and the Neuroscience revolution, in a way that structures my classroom expectations. This leads to questions of interpretation and understanding in school, which is usually labeled Hermeneutics, and forms a large sub-literature in Pedagogy.

    To interpret the history of the notion, in the context of Hans-Georg Gadamer, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy summarizes:

    “Traditionally, hermeneutics is taken to have its origins in problems of biblical exegesis and in the development of a theoretical framework to govern and direct such exegetical practice. In the hands of eighteenth and early nineteenth century theorists, writers such as Chladenius and Meier, Ast and Schleiermacher, hermeneutics was developed into a more encompassing theory of textual interpretation in general — a set of rules that provide the basis for good interpretive practice no matter what the subject matter. Inasmuch as hermeneutics is the method proper to the recovery of meaning, so Wilhelm Dilthey broadened hermeneutics still further, taking it as the methodology for the recovery of meaning that is essential to understanding within the ‘human’ or ‘historical’ sciences (the Geisteswissenschaften). For these writers, as for many others, the basic problem of hermeneutics was methodological: how to found the human sciences, and so how to found the science of interpretation, in a way that would make them properly ‘scientific’. Moreover, if the mathematical models and procedures that appeared to be the hallmark of the sciences of nature could not be duplicated in the human sciences, then the task at issue must involve finding an alternative methodology proper to the human sciences as such — hence Schleiermacher’s ambition to develop a formal methodology that would codify interpretive practice, while Dilthey aimed at the elaboration of a ‘psychology’ that would elucidate and guide interpretive understanding.”

    To me, the “psychology” taught in colleges of education is an uncomfortable and dumbed-down mixture of “Pop Psychology”, obsolete models (i.e. Behaviorism), and ad hoc assemblages of Ed Speak.

    Since teaching is a mix of Science and Art, the Psychology that matters to me is an idiosyncratic blend of modern Neuroscience and hard-core pragmatism which I acquired the hard way in my on-and-off classroom teaching from 1973-2008 (35 years). The combination, only sketched here and in my 126-page in this Classroom Management Plan, constitutes an “alternative methodology proper to the human sciences.” I expect in about 2.5 years an Ed.D. on [working title] “Students at the Edge of Chaos: Complex Systems Theory and Neuroscience in Pedagogy.”

    “Already familiar with earlier hermeneutic thinking, Heidegger redeployed hermeneutics to a very different purpose and within a very different frame. In Heidegger’s early thinking, particularly the lectures from the early 1920s (‘The Hermeneutics of Facticity’), hermeneutics is presented as that by means of which the investigation
    of the basic structures of factical existence is to be pursued — not as that which constitutes a ‘theory’ of textual interpretation nor a method of ‘scientific’ understanding, but rather as that which allows the self-disclosure of the structure of understanding as such. The ‘hermeneutic circle’ that had been a central idea in previous hermeneutic thinking, and that had been viewed in terms of the interpretative interdependence, within any meaningful structure, between the parts of that structure and the whole, was transformed by Heidegger, so that it was now seen as expressing the way in which all understanding was ‘always already’ given over to that which is to be understood (to ‘the things themselves’ — ‘die Sachen selbst’). Thus, to take a simple example, if we wish to understand some particular artwork, we already need to have some prior understanding of that work (even if only as a set of paintmarks on canvas), otherwise it cannot even be seen as something to be understood. To put the point more generally, and in more basic ontological terms, if we are to
    understand anything at all, we must already find ourselves ‘in’ the world ‘along with’ that which is to be understood. All understanding that is directed at the grasp of some particular subject matter is thus based in a prior ‘ontological’ understanding — a prior hermeneutical situatedness. On this basis, hermeneutics can be understood as the attempt to ‘make explicit’ the structure of such
    situatedness. Yet since that situatedness is indeed prior to any specific event of understanding, so it must always be presupposed even in the attempt at its own explication. Consequently, the explication of this situatedness — of this basic ontological mode of understanding — is essentially a matter of exhibiting or ‘laying-bare’ a structure with which we are already familiar (the structure that is present in every event of understanding), and, in this respect, hermeneutics becomes one with phenomenology, itself understood, in Heidegger’s thinking, as just such a ‘laying bare’.”

    To me, however, “structure” is deeply informed by Mathematical Structure, and the the structure of the physical world (i.e. Astronomical structure and Cosmology as mediated by my 20 years in the Space Program; Biological Structure as I have been studying and publishing for a third of a century.)

    “It is hermeneutics, in this Heideggerian and phenomenological sense, that is taken up in Gadamer’s work, and that leads him, in conjunction with certain other insights from Heidegger’s later thinking, as well as the ideas of dialogue and practical wisdom, to elaborate a philosophical hermeneutics that provides an account of the nature of understanding in its universality (where this refers both to the ontologically fundamental character of the hermeneutical situation and the all-encompassing nature of hermeneutic practice) and, in the process, to develop a response to the earlier hermeneutic tradition’s preoccupation with the problem of interpretive method. In these respects, Gadamer’s work, in conjunction with that of Heidegger, represents a radical reworking of the idea of hermeneutics that constitutes a break with the preceding hermeneutical tradition, and yet also reflects back on that tradition. Gadamer thus develops a philosophical hermeneutics that provides an account of the proper ground for understanding, while nevertheless rejecting the attempt, whether in relation to the Geisteswissenschaften or elsewhere, to found understanding on any method or set of rules. This is not a rejection of the importance of methodological concerns, but rather an insistence on the limited role of method and the priority of understanding as a dialogic, practical, situated activity.”

    Bottom line: Science writers and science fiction writers are n dialogue with each other, and with their readers. I am in dialogue with my students, and they with each other. In the sense of Gadamer, we ARE that conversation. My pedagogy is an instrument to make that conversation practical. And fun.