Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Insanity or Persistence?

The power of a word to invoke emotions is certainly evident in the word insanity. There are 10 normal definitions for this, all of which are familiar, having to do with lack of mental health, court room pleas and your run of the mill "craziness". The definition that I have known for about 6 years now is one that was first credited to one of my heroes Albert Einstein. He said that the " definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results". The reason I am familiar with this connotation of insanity is that it is the one that is explored in a movie that my wife and I were Associate Producers for, which is just now available on DVD called "The Definition of Insanity". The film deals with the stubborn passion of a talented actor who endures torturous loss of integrity, family and even mental stability in the pursuit of succeeding in the only thing he feels he must do. In one important scene, he compares his acting with a disability. This is so self analytical that the character reveals both intelligence and an insightfulness that makes us see a depth in his personality that is very profound.

The fact that this particular definition of insanity was originally Einstein's is not acknowledged in the film, but since the film was made, I haven't been able to get it off of my mind. I often wonder why Einstein addresses insanity in this way, as his most famous contributions in special and general relativity were not insane at all. In fact both have been shown to be accurate throughout many experiments. So he didn't fail at this by doing the same thing over and over. Though this is true in looking at a snapshot of that particular success, when looking at a long shot of Einstein's life we see some of the insanity he described, and not just in his wild hair. Amongst people interested in 20th century science, Einstein is not only known for his successes. He is also known for his insistent denial of the century's other biggest breakthrough, which is the probabilistic nature of Quantum Mechanics. Einstein actually won a Nobel Prize for his contribution to Quantum Mechanics. Still he could never take the ultimate step, which was theorized by Bohr, Heisenberg, Dirac and Born. They had theorized that momentum and position of electrons and other sub atomic particles could never be located simultaneously, and with certainty. This theory has been tested thousands of times, leaving little doubt to its validity. Still, Einstein despite his rigor and genius famously said of the theory "god does not play dice with the universe". Not meaning God as a deity, but believing in a deterministic beauty of the cosmos was key to how Einstein viewed the universe. He could not break with this view, no matter how many times he tried. In other words using his own definition he was "insane". When challenged about this seemingly denialist view, Einstein would say that there were hidden variables that Quantum Uncertainty was missing. He wanted to find those, but even if he didn't he felt they were there.

Finding the hidden variables for the meaning of life is both what Einstein wanted, and what the main character in "Definition of Insanity" wants. In fact that desire, without the label of insanity, is often considered a kind of persistence that is admired; the actor trying to understand himself and others through characters, and the scientist trying to understand the universe through mathematics and observation. The difficulty becomes knowing when to stop. At what point does daily reality, like family and happiness, trump eternal questioning? More importantly, at what point is the questioning pointless as the question is already solved, or may never be solved? There is a philosophical strangeness to this whole question, and it is one that scientists seem to be aware of. In Brian Greene's book "The Fabric of The Cosmos", he has an introduction which is mentioned to me by more people than anything in the rest of the long and very engaging book. In it Greene discusses finding a copy of the Albert Camus book "The Myth of Sisyphus" as a child. Sisyphus is a book which uses the Greek legend as a backdrop to explain modern existentialism; a man endlessly pushing a bolder up a mountain, never to reach to peek. Why did this story of hopeless persistence make Greene want to be a scientist? The philosophy seems to suggest that the goal to reach a full understanding of the universe will never be achieved. Perhaps this shows Greene's self awareness. By Knowing that life will be only process and repetition; we can embrace the climb rather than the goal.

So what of insanity? I have been accused of being insane for producing plays and films, which always lose money. I have been accused of insanity for arguing about religion with religious people, as no one has ever changed their views from these arguments. The list goes on and on, and those making the accusations certainly have a point. I would say though that in the Einstein sense we are all insane, and that those of us that acknowledge it may actually be on the journey that Brian Greene has taken. It is a pointless persistence of trying and failing that is the reality of living.
By the way, please do buy "The Definition Of Insanity" I am persistently trying to make this film a much deserved success. http://www.amazon.com/Definition-Insanity-Robert-Margolis/dp/B0030EFZZ8

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Poetic Life of Scientists

More than any interview of a physicist of my generation, last Friday's NPR Science Friday Interview with Cal Tech Physicist Sean Carroll created a mystique for the life of a theoretical scientist. It happened in one moment, which was just marginally different from the common job description of a theoretical scientist. Ira Flotow asked Carroll if he spent his time thinking up these big ideas about time, which is what his new book "From Eternity to Here" (http://www.amazon.com/Eternity-Here-Quest-Ultimate-Theory/dp/0525951334/lecturenotesonge) describes to a general audience. He said that is his job. He goes to the wine bar with a pencil and paper, and thinks of new ways to visualize time and space, and new equations to put the puzzle together. He also said that he was lucky that he worked in such a dynamic field where he could discuss his ideas with colleagues, who we get the impression are his friends. In that moment he managed to elevate the image of a gen x physicist in Pasadena, to lost generation poets in Paris. This is a needed transformation of the imagination. Scientists of my generation and younger have been caught in a historic limbo where social and solitary explorations of the mind have been replaced in large part by social and solitary explorations on-line. We think that science happens only because of computing power, our information gathering resources, and our mass connectivity, while all the while admiring with nostalgia the thought experiments of Einstein, the Eagle Pub of Watson and Crick, or long walks through Copenhagen parks. My favorite book of 2009 was Steven Johnson's, "Invention of Air" (http://www.amazon.com/Invention-Air-Science-Revolution-America/dp/B0031MA7UW/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1265357899&sr=1-1) which not only told of the contribution of Joseph Priestley, but about how coffee bar culture in London led to many of the most important ideas in English science.
Over the last year there have been several books about the need for scientists to be better communicators with the public. I like "Don't Be Such a Scientist" by Randy Olson (http://www.amazon.com/Dont-Be-Such-Scientist-Substance/dp/1597265632/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1265357791&sr=1-1) which dealt with this topic, by describing the necessity of scientists to use film, and other multimedia tools to demonstrate ideas to a larger public. What I realize now though is that there is an essential step missing from the picture of going from the lab to the screen. That is the step where we write, draw and eventually talk with each other, not at seminars, but at wine bars. A Greek symposium was a long night of drinking and discussing. A college symposium usually takes place in a classroom during the day and is much shorter, but for some reason I think I would be much more likely to sleep in that daytime class than drunk on Plato's sofa. While poets and philosophers have searched for ways to explain the human condition, scientists are exploring ways to understand nature in its entirety. Friendship, debate and Pinot Noir are welcome companions in this pursuit.