Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Embracing Abstraction

Mathematics and philosophy have come together and separated countless times in Western civilization. It seems to me that they diverged in one of the strongest ways just over 100 years ago when Einstein published his great works on special relativity, the photoelectric effect and quantum mechanics. Suddenly science and mathematics seemed to encompass such an important and large part of the imagination that philosophy was relegated to dealing primarily with human suffering and existential dread. Both of these are important, but they are limited to human consciousness, while physics was not just reaching towards far away galaxies, but also inwards. It was analyzing time in new ways and exploring the invisible, but real worlds of atoms and molecules. This was the unofficial debut of the theoretical scientist as the stars of logic. The idea of theory to an artist and philosopher is one of ideas. To a scientists theory is mathematics. Theoretical physicists use mathematics to model the universe. To extrapolate our experience beyond our vision.

Recently my wife Marine was explaining Montessori education to me, and the systems that are used for teaching mathematics. Though I am now deeply interested in this, I still don’t know much at all. The main point was that children will learn numbers as a physical reality in small quantities. They can then extrapolate the concept for larger values. Only after this do they learn the symbols, which are written numbers. Though this is a digression from my point, it is what got me thinking about abstraction and science for this blog.

A scientist derives, proves and calculates in order to represent reality in a precise way. What the artist and theoretical scientist have in common in this regard is that both pursuits exist only with a strong ability to abstract. Physics which is the study of nature is not explored by the theoretician in a manner of direct observation, but by manipulation of matrices and formulae.

Abstraction may be a unique human ability which makes the creation of technologies, sculptures, space ships and books possible. It is also likely connected to our desire to distance ourselves from real nature by abstracting it further and further into our models. Goethe, the great poet, famous for words, which are abstractions en par with numbers, pushed back from Newtonian reductionism in favor of a more observation based science of Optics. In most ways Goethe’s scientific ideas were wrong. Newton describes nature in a much more accurate way; the question which remains however is who saw it (as opposed to describe it) more accurately? I believe what the Physicist Richard Feynman said to an artist friend who complained to Feynman that scientists take away the beauty of a yellow flower by reducing it to its scientific components. Feynman said that because he understands why a flower is yellow he appreciates it more. Feynman was unique in his ability to see nature on a deeper level esthetically and realistically while representing it with numbers and diagrams. This is the human intellectual evolution where we can congregate to abstract, but not without first observing. A child may not be able to calculate 1,000,000, but because she understands how to get from 1 to 10, from both observing and abstracting, she can comprehend the concept of 1,000,000. This is what Marine explained to me. As scientists we need perhaps to intuitively understand those things we can see, create numerical abstractions, then extrapolate. With that the theoretician, artist and philosopher can meet on common ground.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Was Wilbur a Rheologist?

Sometimes I stay up late at night and read, watch sci-fi television or write these blogs. Of course in the blogs sometimes my exhaustion shows, as I make rather strange connections between the science I am working on and art. This is all to say that though this one may involve the most farfetched of analogies, I am perfectly awake, and at least as sane as I usually am. Since I am up late some nights, it is especially difficult to wake up early when my little girl does. Many times my wife gets up with her, but other times I do. I find that coffee is slow in getting me going, and since my little girl wants to play, I find things that will get us both moving, and that we both like. My wife put the kibosh on gansta rap music, which had become a nice ritual, when my daughter started saying that “it’s all about the Benjamins baby”, and “It’s hard out here for a Pimp”, at family dinners. So I turned to another source of funny entertainment from my childhood, the 1960’s television series, Mr. Ed., which I had watched in reruns, while home sick from grammar school. Thanks to You Tube I can now share the miraculous talking, brilliant, hilarious horse with my 4 year old daughter, who now even translates “a Horse is a Horse of course of course” to French. I guess that the show was a hit in those days, because it was so damn funny, but also because people could relate to both the horse Mr. Ed., who due to the unfortunate act of birth was born a horse with an IQ and vocal abilities that combined Albert Einstein and Frank Sinatra, and Wilbur, who had such a brilliant friend, but because this friend lived in the stables, could not share the companionship with anyone. Perhaps we all feel lonely like this sometimes, and that either ourselves, or the people (or animals) we love are misunderstood. Mr. Ed. reads every newspaper that Wilbur brings to him, and he has an excellent analytical mind. In one episode for instance he figures out the problem in the Dodgers line up, and has Wilbur write to Dodgers management. The solution clears up the whole problem, and the Dodgers go on to winning a pennant, in addition to getting great publicity with pictures of a horse sliding into home base taken when Wilbur brings Mr. Ed. to the field. What didn’t occur to me, though it must seem obvious to anyone who thinks about it outside the isolation of Nickelodeon Syndication, is that Wilbur most likely has a severe case of schizophrenia. Though we mostly think of people with this disease as homeless, and in many cases dangerous, it is a rather common disease, and it is not unlikely that upper middle class Californians like Wilbur are visiting the barn for a night cap with a thoroughbred. So suddenly this old sitcom became all the more personal to me, as I have related to Wilbur and Ed since 1980i. I started thinking about my days, and whether I am either farm animal living amonst creatures who don’t speak my language, or a bourgeois business man whose intellectual equals eat hay while standing on all fours. It is probably not so uncommon that I am thinking in these terms, as I am living in France, where my French is not so good. I have conversations in a language, where I might as well be saying neigh half of the time. Still there is something more to this. I also spend the majority of my day working in a small field of physics called Rheology. If you ask 99.9% of all Physicists in the world their opinion on rheological issues they will not know what you are talking about. Yet like most academic pursuits those of us who do spend a good amount of time considering issues relating rheology, we find it very interesting, compelling to the point of obsessiveness, and even extremely important. Though I assume everyone reading this must have a basic understanding of rheology (do I suffer from delusions?), it will sum it up to say that it is the study of complex flow of materials. Any materials that is, which to me seems like it is the study of nearly everything in the Universe. That is very a very broad philosophical interpretation of it though, as the truth is we have to study very specific properties, of very specific materials, which means that the universe as a whole rarely comes into focus. Still, I spent all week, and will spend many more working on this topic, with one, or at most two other people who are smarter, than, and at least as passionate as I am about this subject. This weekend I played with the family, and tomorrow I go back to the University (or is it the stable), and figure out how to analyze polymers in the fluid state, or is that win the pennant?

It may seem like I am saying that either I am a nut who can’t communicate with other people, like Wilbur, or a genius that no one understands, Like Mr. Ed. This is not really true in a directly analogous way. Wilbur and Mr. Ed. are cultural extremes. Wilbur is the most middle class normal married guy, and Mr. Ed is the most… well talking horse. Neither of these extremes exists in real life. What do exist are small enclaves in University science departments, art schools, back rooms of jazz clubs, and internet chat rooms. In these places everyone is working very hard at doing something they find important in some way, while struggling with to find a language that the rest of society can understand. We run up against a society where conformity now means not only having the best cocktail parties for the neighbors, but how many Facebook Friends you have, and Google hits occur when you type your name into the subject line. All of this pressure to speak and to be understood by the world as a whole however isn’t what our lives are really about. Really it is more like Wilbur and Mr. Ed, facing the world together and apart.