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I read a book not too long ago called The Science of Shakespeare by Dan Falk. It was a lot of fun, delving into both Hamlet and some of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays, as well as the accelerating pace of science before, during, and after Shakespeare’s time. Truth be told, however, the actual links between Shakespeare and the science of his time are pretty thin. While Shakespeare of course had an amazing intellect and a deep curiosity, I think the most reasonable assessment has to be that Shakespeare wasn’t particularly interested in science.
But the beauty of Symphony is that I’m not limited to only one kind of music. I can love Shakespeare and science – and I do. Today I’m going to tell a story – certainly not worthy of the Bard, but I hope you like it, anyway – about how we got to now.
Now, in case you haven’t been watching, is the time when we humans will complete the initial reconnaissance of our Solar System by visiting tiny Pluto. Planet or not, Pluto is among the last of the major objects in the Sun’s family to receive a visitor from Earth.
As we watch these close-up pictures of Pluto fill our computer screens, let’s think about how we got here.
Long ago, people noticed the stars. No one knew what the stars could be, but that didn’t prevent us from making up stories. The stars were holes in a blanket, revealing a fire behind. They were milk, squirted from the breast of Hera. They (according to Jim and Huck) were eggs, laid by the Moon across the sky just as a frog might lay her own eggs in the river. Clever as they were, none of the stories came anywhere near the massive truth that stars were enormous nuclear furnaces in whose chaotic centers the elements of our very own bodies are forged. Science got us that story, and lots more besides.
Before science, people noticed that the stars moved across the sky in familiar patterns. Certain stars always returned to the same spot in the sky at the same time each season. The bright stars of Orion always appeared in the Autumn in the Northern Hemisphere for instance
But there were other objects, too. They looked something like stars, although they seemed not to twinkle the way stars did. More unusually, though, these objects wandered across the sky separate from the unchanging stars. They were named “planets” a word that meant “wanderers.”
People named the planets after their gods. The lovely morning and evening stars were, once they were found to be the same object, named after the goddess of love. The bright and stately planet that moved over the full sky was the king of the gods. The reddish world was the god of war.
But what were they, really? In 1609 Galileo pointed a new device toward the heavens and saw that the planets were more than just lights in the sky. Venus, not just the goddess of love, was also a world that, like our own Moon, passed through phases of light and dark. Warlike Mars didn’t show phases, but unlike the stars it formed a disk in Galileo’s telescope. And Jupiter, the god king, was not a single world but five, with the four smaller ones circling round and round the central disk (this, incidentally, was a discovery so momentous that even Shakespeare may have referenced it in his play Cymbeline – a work I look forward to reading soon).
Next came the discoveries of Kepler, who found that the orbits of the planets followed strict mathematical rules, and Newton, who explained those rules with an elegantly simple law. Every time an apple falls from a tree it follows the same law that keeps all the worlds of the Solar System in orbit around the Sun.
Later we were able to use those same laws of motion to discover planets and other worlds we couldn’t even see with our eyes! Uranus was revealed due to its invisible influence on Saturn. Neptune showed up when it pulled on Uranus (ok, stop giggling).
The story would be perfect if only Pluto had also shown up due to its gravitational tug on Neptune. Sadly, Pluto’s discovery was actually an accident. Mathematical errors in the calculations of Uranus’ and Neptune’s orbits led scientists to expect another large planet in Pluto’s place. Instead, and mostly by accident, tiny Pluto happened to be in the right place at the right time, showing that even scientists need a little bit of good luck sometimes.
For thousands of years, people wondered about the planets. But the discoveries of Galileo, Kepler, Newton and their followers let us not only learn what the planets are, but actually travel there. In less than 24 hours, New Horizons will zip along its Newtonian trajectory, flying past a world that Newton’s genius (and a few math errors) helped us know.
Leonard Nimoy passed away Friday, which led me to revisit some Star Trek The Original Series (TOS) over the weekend.
There’s no doubt the influence Mr. Spock had on my childhood. By far my favorite TOS character even then, Spock was a role model for a nerdy little kid who often felt as much an alien as the pointy-eared First Officer of the Enterprise. Emotions are a funny thing when you’re a kid – much of your young life is a struggle to control your anger, your fear, your frustration, and of course usually you fail. In Spock we were presented a man – a hero – who struggled with his own emotions again and again, and who found a way to succeed.
On top of that, he was the Science Officer! How cool could you get? One got the feeling that Spock knew everything, and only ever held back so as to make Kirk and the rest feel that they weren’t doing so badly.
Having watched a few episodes over the weekend, I can only say – wow, TOS was really, really bad. The dialogue was wooden, the over-the-top dramatic music was matched only by William Shatner’s over-the-top phrasing and bravado, the same jokes were played out again and again and again . . . usually at Spock’s expense. Never, not even in its best moments, did TOS come anywhere near the best of TNG: Darmok; The Inner Light; I, Borg; All Good Things; The Measure of a Man; Chain of Command – and on and on.
By the way, looking at the list of TNG’s best and one thing is obvious. TNG was Jean-Luc Picard. While TOS explored humanity through the half-human Spock and the ridiculous Kirk, and TNG tried casting Data in the Spock role (and Riker in the Kirk role), I think it bacame quite obvious around Season Three that TNG was Patrick Stewart’s series. He made it special with his skill, his energy, his humanity. Through Stewart’s portrayal of Picard, TNG became something I think no one would have predicted – a true exploration of what it means to live a meaningful human life.
OK, this was supposed to be a tribute to Leonard Nimoy and his Mr. Spock. Instead it’s become a celebration of Picard. But maybe that’s fitting. So many people compare and contrast Picard with Kirk that it’s become an internet trope. It occurs to me, though, that it’s the wrong comparison. Spock, with his desire for logic, his love of peace and diplomacy, his boundless curiosity, was the true ancestor of Picard, who shared all those qualities and more. Picard, unlike Spock, wasn’t frightened of his emotions, but he was always in control of them. Picard, unlike Spock, didn’t run from his humanity. Instead, he embraced it, found ways to make it work for him. Picard took what Spock had begun and raised it to new, unexpected heights.
So goodbye, Mr. Spock. Thanks for making it possible for us to know Jean-Luc Picard, your true heir.
Jacob Bronowski died when I was just six years old, soon after completing his 13-part series The Ascent of Man. I remember as a child seeing this series as VHS tapes on the library shelves. As this was in the days before VCRs became commonplace, I never took these tapes off the shelf. I didn’t know what I was missing.
Bronowski was an extraordinary human being. A mathematician, a poet, a biologist, a chess champion, and most of all an artist in words. I just finished his very short book, Science and Human Values.
Bronowski begins in Nagasaki, shortly after the destruction of that city by the plutonium bomb that finally convinced Japan to surrender and so end World War II. Bronowski asks if science has become a monster poised to break all our necks. He then proceeds to show how science, like art, reflects the fundamental problem of being human; that is, the struggle between individual and society, and the search for balance, a place where society functions as a collection of individuals.
The most moving parts for me reflect on my experiences as a teacher and a learner. Bronowski describes the act of creation, so similar in both science and art, where the artist and the scientist each discover a connection never before seen.
“The discoveries of science, the works of art are explorations – more, are explosions, of a hidden likeness.” – Jacob Bronowski, Science and Human Values
This explosion doesn’t end with the creator, however. The true beauty of art and of science is that the discovery is experienced again and again, as each individual encounters it. When I look at Michelangelo’s David, when I read of Einstein’s General Relativity, when I watch a performance of Macbeth, I experience the explosive joy of discovery first felt by the artist, the scientist, the writer. And when I, as a teacher, gently guide a learner toward these things, I experience again some of the joy of my own re-discovery. We each of us construct these things for ourselves, created anew within each individual – and, if we’re faithful to the true value of teaching, maybe even improved upon.
And this is the value that Bronowski so elegantly expresses in his book. We humans, individual beings forever separated from our fellows, are able to connect with one another through the common act, the human joy, of discovery, of creation, of progress.
There are only a few people I wish I could have known in my life. Jacob Bronowski is one of them.
Though he is gone, we can know him, at least a little. The Ascent of Man, that series I never watched as a child, is now readily available without even getting out of your chair. Here’s one excerpt about art and science. Enjoy.
I wrote a while ago about Darmok, one of my favorite Star Trek episodes (second only, I think, to the finale, “All Good Things”, though “The Inner Light” and “I, Borg” are awfully close). I’m writing about Darmok again for two reasons. One, in this week’s Cosmos Neil de Grasse Tyson told the story of Gilgamesh. That made me want to watch Darmok again. And two, there’s something I almost wrote last time, but didn’t quite make it there.
I know many people hate this episode. I know they say the premise is ridiculous. But here is where I think the critics are missing something crucial.
We are the Children of Tama. We understand the world through metaphor. This is precisely what Piaget says about how we learn. We build on our prior knowledge and experience to come up with new understanding.
When a child learns the concept of “dog”, a new structure is built in her brain. When, next, the child sees a cat, she may say “dog”, trying to make a connection to what she already knows. A cat is a dog. Metaphor! Later, the child expands her understanding to see that cat is a new category, something like dog, but different, as well. Metaphors are beautiful because of course they are only almost true.
This will sound crazy, but what if the aliens depicted in this episode actually don’t communicate through metaphor? What if it’s us? What if our brains are so different from theirs that the universal translator simply gives us everything in a form it thinks we might understand? Everything for us is so tied to metaphor – “The Tamarians are aliens, the metal contraption they ride in is a spaceship, the person in charge is their captain.” All of these are models we build in our minds to help us understand a never-before-experienced situation. Also, all are metaphors.
I mentioned the last time I wrote about Darmok my favorite scene, in which the Tamarian captain Dathon pidgins his own language to help Picard understand, and to communicate back to him. Now I have a close second. Near the end, as the new Tamarian captain receives Dathon’s log from Picard, he says “Picard and Dathon at El-Adril”.
He’s just created a new metaphor! We’ve just witnessed the language grow. Note that this metaphor does not have the same meaning as “Darmok and Jilad at Tenagra.” Dathon died. This story has a new meaning – sacrifice for a noble cause.
So that blows my theory about we being the Children of Tama, right? No. Who is watching the show? Not the Tamarians. We are. Why? For the same reason we watch any program, or read any book, or listen to any song. Stories change us. We grow by adding metaphors. Over the course of this extraordinary episode, Dathon and Picard have taught us something: about life; about communication; about understanding, about sacrifice. Picard and Dathon at El-Adril. And we will never be the same.
Solomon Northrup, a free black man living in Saratoga, NY with his wife and two children, wakes up one morning in 1841 to find himself in chains, locked in a dank cellar. A man beats him bloody until Solomon renounces his freedom. For the next 134 tense minutes, we follow Solomon’s journey through the cotton and sugarcane plantations of Louisiana, witnessing the horrors that arise when human beings are property.
I found myself at the edge of my seat, unable to even look away from the screen. Rarely has a movie affected me so deeply. I was reminded forcefully of a television adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank I saw as a young boy. In both cases I was struck at the injustice of having your life ripped away, of having no recourse, no chance of escape.
One of the striking features of the movie was the beauty of the landscape. Bucolic fields, warm, sunny days, lovely mornings, grand mansions, hoop skirts and horses. But just under the surface of all that beauty were the whip, the noose, the rapist, the torturer, the injustice, the illogic, the unfathomable despair. This is a movie that grabs you and will not let go.
Afterwards I read reviews and comments. At first I felt anger, incredulity, and deep sadness at the defensiveness and knee-jerk claims of reverse racism. I’m over it now. The whole point of a free society, after all, is that everyone has a voice. People are different, and those differences will naturally be reflected in our reactions to art. If we really believe in freedom, we have to believe that all reactions to such things must be legitimate. Even the really dumb ones.
OK, I’m a middle aged white guy, not Jewish, not black, not any minority class to speak of unless you count atheist. And I don’t. Could I understand this movie? Of course I could. That’s the point of art. It changes you. We all build understanding in our own way; we follow our own path. Some paths lead nowhere – that’s the danger and the joy of freedom. Other paths lead to a deeper, better (but still imperfect) place. You can’t know until you take the journey – for the journey itself is how you know.
When my family and I went to Chicago a couple of months ago, I was struck by a sculpture at the Chicago Art Institute. I took a picture, then forgot about it until just now, as I was thinking about 12 Years a Slave. Here’s the sculpture.
It’s called The Freedman by John Quincy Adams Ward. What you have to understand about The Freedman is that you are first drawn to the face, the strong arms and shoulders, the chest. This is a person, beautiful and strong, an actor in the universe. He could be Achilles, or David, or Galileo. Then, and only then, your eye is drawn down to the left wrist to reveal the chain.
The thought that anyone ever had the right to own this person as property is immediately absurd. The evils of slavery emanate from this absurdity. The sculptor communicated this to me in a way I could understand, intensely and viscerally, like a wave washing over my entire being. Just as the makers of 12 Years a Slave communicated with me. These works of art moved me, shook me, helped me (no, forced me) to build new paths. What more could you want?
As much as I thrilled to the technology Melville described in Moby-Dick, I particularly enjoyed laughing at Melville’s bad science. Some of his errors are wholly understandable; Melville lived in a pre-Darwinian world in which biology remained a great mystery. But some of his mistakes reflect what will seem a ridiculous statement, yet one I believe I can defend. Melville, I argue, lacked imagination.
Let’s begin with Darwin. Charles Darwin was born in 1809 and sailed around the world aboard the HMS Beagle between 1831 and 1836. While this voyage helped Darwin formulate his ideas on the evolution of life, these ideas didn’t solidify until the early 1840s, and were not published until 1856, five full years after the publication of Moby-Dick.
This pre- vs post-Darwin worldview is most obvious when Melville tries to classify whales in his chapter on cetology. The first mistake occurs before Melville has even begun his classification scheme. For Melville, “a whale is a spouting fish with a horizontal tail.” (p 198). He then goes on to classify whales by size as their most important and diagnostic characteristic.
Here’s the thing: in a pre-Darwinian world, there’s no particular sense in which we could say that Melville was wrong, either about whales as fish or about their familial relationships. Without Darwin’s insight of common descent, classification is nothing more than sorting. There are many, many ways to sort everyday objects – by color, by utility, by composition, and so on. Not until Darwin showed that all animals evolved from a common ancestor could there be exactly one correct way to classify them. That one way is to follow the concept of adaptive radiation. The history of life is an ever-branching tree, with each branch a species. Pre-Darwin, anyone might make an argument for or against whales as fish or as mammals. Post-Darwin, there is only one correct answer. Whales are mammals, because their ancestors were mammals.*
*Ironically, modern cladistics, which follows logically from Darwin’s insight, shows us that whales (as well as elephants, eagles, rattlesnakes, and we) actually are fish, because deep, deep in our history, we all have fish ancestors. But this is not the sense in which Melville claims whales as fish.
There’s a revealing episode later in the book in which Melville comments on the very human-like hand bones found in every whale’s fins. Melville is commenting on how strange it is that whales’ bodies so poorly match their skeletons. He says this tendency, “is also curiously displayed in the side fin, the bones of which almost exactly answer to the bones of the human hand, minus only the thumb.” (p 383) What I find curious is that it never occurred to Melville to ask why the one sort of creature in the ocean with both warm blood and lungs also happened to mimic the mammalian hand under its finny flesh.
As mentioned, all this is perhaps excusable; after all, Darwin’s insight was genius. It took a Darwin to show us exactly what whales (and all other animals) were. But I think there’s a deeper issue in much of Melville’s scientific philosophy. He seems trapped in worldview from an earlier time, a time when nothing much ever changed.
For instance, when discussing cetacean art (art of whales, not art by whales!) Melville makes the following bizarre statement: “(A)ny way you look at it, you must needs conclude that the great Leviathan is that one creature in the world which must remain unpainted to the last.”(p. 383) In other words, we’ll never have a good rendering of the whale in life.
A 0.20 second Google image search makes a liar of Melville “about 565,000,000” times. Not fair, you might say. How could Melville ever have predicted the way in which image technology would explode? Yet this is exactly my point. From the moment our ancestors created painted images of the beasts they hunted upon dark and rough cave walls, people have worked to create images of their world. This desire for accurate pictures has never changed, though our technological skill has certainly increased. I take it as a failure of imagination that Melville, steeped as he was in the ingenious technology used to kill whales, could not envision that technology might someday allow us to render those same whales, not into oil, but into faithful images.
More seriously, in chapter 105, Melville asks the question, “Will He (the whale) Perish?”
(W)hether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc; whether he must not at last be exterminated from the waters, and the last whale, like the last man, smoke his last pipe, and then himself evaporate in the final puff. (p. 673)
Melville’s answer is no, we humans will never make the slightest dent in the worldwide whale population. His reasoning, once again, reveals a lack of imagination from this teller of tales. Melville argues that a single whaling ship, on a four-year cruise, is happy to kill and render perhaps forty whales. Such a small number could not possibly affect the whale’s population. He also argues that the ocean is vast, and if whales are chased away from one particular portion of the ocean, they can always relocate to another. Finally, Melville argues that as a last resort whales can always find refuge under the ice, where no human hunter can ever go.
We know, of course, that Melville’s argument fell sloppy dead on all three counts with the coming of more and better technology. Exploding harpoons, more efficient factory ships, and, of course, fossil-fuel engines that could outrun, outmaneuver, and outlast any whale anywhere in the world changed the equation dramatically.
In a related argument, Melville described the blue whale (he called it the sulphur-bottomed whale) quite briefly, merely stating that “he is never chased; he would run away with rope-walks of line.”(p 204) This to me reveals all, for when whaling began the same might have been said of the sperm whale. No one knew how to hunt it. Then people learned how. Why wouldn’t further learning, further ideas, further technology, reveal a method for hunting this largest of all creatures? Of course, that is exactly what happened, as the technology of World War II, once used to kill people, was soon after turned upon the blue whale, resulting in that magnificent animal’s near-extinction in a matter of decades.
All this makes me think of both David Deutsch’s book, in which he makes a statement so simple and yet deeply profound – we cannot know what we have not yet discovered – and Steven Pinker’s, in which he describes how people have changed over time. In particular, Pinker makes the argument that we today are better at reasoning than were people in the past. I was reminded of this forcefully when I read Melville’s argument that whales are fish. After describing the reasons forwarded by Linnaeus for putting whales into the mammalian class, Melville dismisses these arguments by submitting “all this to my friends . . . both messmates of mine in a certain voyage, and they united in the opinion that the reasons set forth were altogether insufficient. Charley (one of the narrator’s friends) profanely hinted they were humbug.” Now there’s an airtight argument for you!
This is so like Pinker’s discussion of the Flynn Effect in IQ testing, reflecting our growing ability to reason. From page 776 of that book:
Consider a typical question from the Similarities section of an IQ test: “What do dogs and rabbits have in common?” The answer, obvious to us, is that they are both mammals. But an American in 1900 would have been just as likely to say, “You use dogs to hunt rabbits.” The difference, Flynn notes, is that today we spontaneously classify the world with the categories of science, but not so long ago the “correct” answer would seem abstruse and irrelevant. “’Who cares that they are both mammals?’” Flynn imagines the test-taker asking in 1900. “That is the least important thing about them from his point of view. What is important is orientation in space and time, what things are useful, and what things are under one’s control.” (p 776)
Pinker goes on to describe how this change Flynn discovered makes a real difference in our lives:
Flynn suggests that over the course of the 20th century, scientific reasoning infiltrated from the schoolhouse and other institutions into everyday thinking. More people worked in offices and the professions, where they manipulated symbols rather than crops, animals, and machines. People had more time for leisure, and they spent it in reading, playing combinatorial games, and keeping up with the world. (p 778)
All this may seem pretty academic. Big deal that Melville got the science wrong – he was writing over 150 years ago! I think, though, that Melville’s failure is telling. Understanding the world through science, particularly since the Enlightenment, has always led to greater control and influence over that world. As we will see, for Melville such control, even such understanding, is illusory. This illusion of reason speaks to the moral struggles that form the heart of the book. It is those moral struggles to which I turn next.
Sometimes I worry that I’ve given a blog entry a title that someone else has used before. This time I think I’m safe.
I saw Black Swan over the weekend and loved it. For me this movie was about losing yourself in your art, and in that way finding that experience of being alive, what Joseph Campbell called “following your bliss.” I think this movie is metaphor. I could argue that all the horrible things Nina the ballerina does or experiences in this film are in her imagination, and I actually think a strong case can be made for it. But I don’t have to, because real or not the events are all just metaphor. The film is about art, and Nina’s discovery of the artist within her. The rest is incidental (yes, even THAT scene!)
Most reviews I’ve read describe the movie as a descent into madness, but they miss the point. Creating art is like madness, but that doesn’t make it madness itself. Art is by its nature the creation of something that wasn’t there before, and is therefore unreal. What you see in your mind, what you imagine, what you are driven to create doesn’t exist until you create it. So of course that act of creation feels crazy. It’s believing in something that doesn’t exist – yet.
Emily Dickinson wrote a poem about what it feels like to give birth to a poem – how painful, tortuous, maddening, and finally liberating it can be. The creative power! The power to give life to something that never existed until it somehow grew within your own mind, sprang from your own soul. Here’s the poem:
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum –
Kept beating – beating – till I thought
My Mind was going numb –
And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space – began to toll,
As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race
Wrecked, solitary, here –
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing – then –
OK, now you’re convinced. I’m out of my mind. This isn’t a poem about writing poetry, it’s a poem about going crazy. That’s what all the critics and all the web sites say. And THEY’RE ALL WRONG! Notice the hints Emily Dickinson leaves us.
Sense was breaking through – not through the floor, that comes later in the poem. This sense is the sense of what this newest, latest poem is going to be about. Dickinson, who wrote in the metaphor of death, had a muse. That muse was a funeral.
Those same boots of lead, again. Several times in the poem, Dickinson indicates that this experience was not once in a lifetime. It has happened to her, in her, again and again.
All the heavens were a bell and being but an ear. She couldn’t help but listen to her muse, the sound in her head was so loud that it consumed her existence, turning her into a receiver only, just an ear.
Her race is with silence, in other words, with death. It isn’t clear in this poem if Dickinson fears death, but it is quite clear that she fears losing to silence, not creating this new poem before she dies. She sees herself wrecked, solitary, unable to complete this thing that is her child, her creation, before silence finally wins.
So far, maybe you’re not convinced. All these things could just as easily apply to madness. Fair enough. But in the final stanza, Dickinson reveals the true nature of this act of creation.
A plank in reason breaks. The final wall, the final block between her and this future place where the poem lives, complete and perfect. With this plank broken, Dickinson falls freely. Again we see that she’s made this journey before, hitting a “world” (a poem) each time she’s taken the plunge. What an amazing metaphor! Writing poetry, creating anything really, is taking a plunge, believing that you’ll hit a world, not knowing, yet taking the leap. The leap . . .
And then the last line, where Dickinson reveals that now, finished, she has a knowledge she lacked before. As painful as it was, she has followed her bliss, she has hit a world, she has finished knowing.
But she’s not done, and maybe never will be. The word –then– followed by Dickinson’s favorite punctuation, the pregnant, anticipatory dash, sends us back to the top of the poem, where the entire process begins again. Lather, rinse, repeat.
This act of creation, this birthing and breathing of life into art, is never pretty. It upsets people. It makes one late for dinner. It soils what we think is proper in ballet, or poetry. Or science. Yes, you knew I had to get there eventually.
Niels Bohr was an artist, as much as he was a scientist. Just like Nina in Black Swan, just like Emily Dickinson with her world plunging, Niels Bohr fought and struggled and convulsed in agonized spasms of pure beauty – and out popped the Bohr model of the atom.
It’s 1911. One of my all-time heroes, Ernest Rutherford, that living bowling ball of enthusiasm and intuition, has just discovered something that cannot be. Rutherford has found that the atom consists of an incredibly dense central nucleus surrounded by bits of orbiting electronic fluff, a little like a miniature solar system. But that is, according to all the science Rutherford or anyone else knows, impossible. Electrons have an electric charge, and whenever objects with an electric charge accelerate, they must radiate away energy. If electrons in an atom did that, all atoms in the universe would collapse to nothing in a tiny fraction of a second.
A tall, shy, and brilliant student of Rutherford’s named Niels Bohr determines to find out why the universe still exists. He plays with an impossible idea. Maybe the electrons don’t fall. No reason, they just don’t. Or rather, they fall, all right, but only an exact, specific amount, and never beyond their lowest energy level. There they stay, never to cease. Why? Mystery . . .
But Bohr’s model, illogical, ugly (and yet so, so beautiful), without any reason behind it, worked. A plank in reason broke (not Max Planck, though I’m sure he wasn’t pleased) and Bohr plunged into a new world. And it worked. When Bohr compared his model to the spectral lines produced by hydrogen, the model worked.
What does that mean, worked? Here’s the picture. A Bohr hydrogen atom has a single electron in orbit. Let’s suppose this atom is energized, perhaps heated, jostled, it doesn’t matter. That means the single electron is orbiting higher than its lowest possible orbit, and that makes the electron unstable. Then, suddenly, the electron falls (a plank in reason breaks?) and out flies a photon. The electron reaches its ground state orbit and stops falling.
Here’s the amazing thing, the thing that Rutherford himself pointed out.
“How,” Rutherford wrote to Bohr, “does an electron decide what frequency it is going to vibrate at when it passes from one stationary state to another? It seems to me that you have to assume that the electron knows beforehand where it is going to stop.”
Indeed. Bohr’s answer, that the transition itself is fundamental, not capable of simpler explanation, was so disturbing that many physicists detested it. Paul Ehrenfest, another physicist and one of Bohr’s closest companions, said, “Bohr’s work . . . has driven me to despair. If this is the way to reach the goal, I must give up doing physics.”
But Bohr had shown the way to the goal. Yes, it is true that the Bohr model was soon eclipsed by better models. But this doesn’t change one bit the amazing accomplishment of this artist doing science. Bohr created something that wasn’t there before, an atom in which electrons behaved like nothing else ever conceived. Bohr hit a world, and finished knowing – then –
Just like Black Swan, just like Dickinson’s funeral in her brain, Bohr’s atom was metaphor. It was creation itself, that act that makes us uniquely human. We are pattern-makers, story tellers. We are the creators. Whether a poem that lasts as long as there are readers, a dance that lasts only moments on the stage, or a model of the atom that holds sway until a better model replaces it, all these creations are metaphor.*
*What’s a metaphor? It’s for cows to eat in!
I’m not often a fan of fiction. I recently finished Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and had a mixed reaction. But I find a lot to like in Pullman’s underlying philosophy. And the more I read of others’ negative reactions to the trilogy, the more I find myself drawn to its central message. Organized religion finds lots not to like about Pullman’s books, and they’re absolutely right. They should be threatened by these books, because they strike right at the heart of everything that’s wrong with much of religious philosophy.
I became very interested in Pullman’s vivid description of what it is like to have one’s daemon “severed”, and in reading more about it I came across this blog.
What I’m about to write is totally unfair; the author of this blog is probably a fine person, a deep thinker, a good parent, and all the rest. But his words about Pullman’s book repulse me in (I suspect) a way exactly opposite the blog author’s intent. Here’s what he wrote:
“In a sense we are all severed children, cut off from God. The Incarnation has made it possible for us to begin to re-establish the connection. The choice is there, for everyone and for all time. The mere knowledge that this is possible, and the faith to embark on the process, is enough to undo many of the effects of the severing; it accounts for the serenity which is one of the things we always sense in someone who seems to be far advanced along the path.
“The truly severed, those who most resemble Pullman’s severed children—lost, empty, half-dead creatures—are those who deny the very possibility of what they need to be whole. Or, in other words, those who believe what Pullman preaches. Because it is a necessity for us to accept the reality of the spirit in order to be whole human beings, Pullman and his fellow atheists are like miners trapped in a cave-in, breathing stale air which will soon be exhausted of oxygen, and in delirium denying that there is or could be such a thing as fresh and wholesome air.”
Speaking as a lost, empty, half-dead creature (who is right now looking at a beautiful blue sky and wondering how anything can be so perfect), all I can say to the author is, “Can you hear yourself? Can you hear the arrogance and presumption?” But that’s not really what I want to write about. What I want to write about is the twisting of concepts that I’ve found in my own limited experience to be so representative of all that religion tries to do.
In His Dark Materials, the idea of the daemon is you. Not some otherworldly spirit, not some generous gift from somewhere else. It is you. Your hopes, dreams, fears, loves, aspirations, the thing that makes you yourself and not someone else. The loss of your daemon is the loss of your identity.
And this is what religion asks.
Religion (my religion, anyway, the religion I grew up with) tells us that what’s good is actually bad. If you love your child more than God, you’re a sinner. God might test you by ordering you to kill that child. Abraham loved God more than Isaac, and was duly rewarded. I (and you, too, and every good and decent person I know, I suspect) would have failed that test, and been punished by God.
Religion tells us that knowledge is bad. Eve chose knowledge, instead of eternal infancy and ignorance, and she and Adam were punished by God. Read Genesis 3:22. God didn’t want their eyes opened. God wanted to keep them ignorant forever.
Religion tells us that doubt is bad. Thomas demanded proof that Jesus had risen from the dead. Jesus gave him proof, then chided him, praising those who believed without proof.
Religion tells us to submit, to give ourselves to God, to abandon worldly things. The world is sinful, no good, impure. Turn your back on it, and you’ll be rewarded. Later.
Look carefully at this list. Don’t love anything, even your own children, more than God. Don’t seek knowledge. Don’t doubt. Don’t enjoy life.
In other words, be severed.
In His Dark Materials the Church decided to try severing children to save them from Original Sin. In our world, religion does the same thing, metaphorically. Then (and here’s the really clever trick) religion tries to give you this false daemon they call God.
Read carefully the quote above. Notice how the concept of the daemon is so cleverly turned upside-down. You start off severed. Only faith in God can make you whole again. Anyone who tells you different is just, what was it? Oh, yes, “like miners trapped in a cave-in, breathing stale air which will soon be exhausted of oxygen, and in delirium denying that there is or could be such a thing as fresh and wholesome air.”
I deny no such thing. I say the air is fresh and wholesome. Where the author sees a cave-in, I see life: messy, imperfect, beautiful life. We start off whole, we humans. We start off with brains and eyes and ears to take in all that is around us, starstuff contemplating the stars. We start off (hopefully) with parents and community who give us the tools the learn, the freedom to make mistakes, and the support to recover from those mistakes. We start off with choices. Think of the power in that! Is there any greater freedom than the freedom to choose?
Some choose a religious path, or an artistic path. I have chosen a path that helps me see the beauty and wonder of the natural world. All these paths are perfectly valid in their own way, of course. The tragedy I see is in denying the choice itself. Don’t let others choose your path. Don’t let them use fear, intimidation, and empty promises of something better around the corner to fool you into not trusting yourself. Joseph Campbell used to say “follow your bliss.” He could just as well have said, “follow your daemon.”
In our world we can’t see our daemons. But they’re there. We all have them, and we know them well. They’re the voice you hear as you stand in the shower, contemplating your day. They’re the joy you feel on a beautiful blue-sky day. They’re the tears that well up at the end of a Hallmark commercial. They’re the whisper in your head when you hear a ridiculous story, saying “come on!” You know your daemon. Your daemon is YOU!
Don’t let them sever your daemon. You have the power to choose. Use it.
My daughter Caroline sang the lead in her school concert last night. My wife and I were so scared for her, literally shaking in her seats, but she was brilliant. How a seven-year-old ever got that brave I’ll never know. I would have curled up under the bleachers at that age.
They sang “The Rainbow Connection.” I love the optimism of the song, its conviction that the world is a magical place.
It’s easy to read into the song an indictment of science as this dull, soul-crushing set of facts that takes the mystery out of everything, leaving it flat and dead. But that’s not how I see the song or science. Understanding rainbows reveals the real magic they possess, the deep and beautiful mysteries they contain.
Everything in the universe that makes its own light also makes a rainbow. Usually we can’t see the rainbow, because of an amazing thing: all the colors of light travel at exactly the same speed. Why? We’ll come to that.
Using special equipment like prisms or diffraction gratings, we can reveal the hidden, secret rainbow in all light beams. Sometimes we discover that the rainbow is made of just one color. Laser beams and sodium vapor lamps are like this, and tell us something deep about how that light is made. Other times there are just a few colors in the light beam. But most things, things that glow because they’re hot, things like incandescent light bulbs, campfires, and stars, give off every color of the rainbow.
We see stars because they’re so hot. They blast space with radiation, and a tiny bit of it reaches us, after traveling for tens, hundreds, thousands, even millions of years. Imagine that! Light that was formed before you were even born traveled through empty space, day after day after day, as you grew up. Then, one evening, you happened to glance into the sky and catch that little bit of light in your eye.
If you send that little bit of light through a diffraction grating before it reaches your eye, you discover something incredible. The light reveals the composition of the star that made it. What are stars made of? The same stuff you’re made of. In fact, the stuff you’re made of was made, originally, up there, in the stars. You are starstuff contemplating the stars. That’s only one of the things we learn by understanding rainbows.
What else? How about this? The rainbows we see are only a tiny bit of what’s actually there. I was recently writing for a textbook company, and a passage I’d written about “invisible light” was edited. They said they don’t discuss invisible light, because all light is visible. They changed it to “invisible electromagnetic waves.”
Well, I’m their writer monkey, so OK. But they miss the entire point! Electromagnetic waves and light are no different, except for one thing. Our eyes react to light. To remove that connection is to take away one of the great unifications of science. Visible light is electromagnetic radiation we can see. Electromagnetic radiation is invisible light!
And some of that invisible light tells an incredible story. Watch the best thing on television. That would be the channel with no signal. You get nothing but static – noise. About 1 of every 100 bits of that static is the world’s oldest fossil. It’s radiation from the great fireball that began the universe. What’s on TV tonight? The Big Bang!
By studying this invisible light (there, I said it, nya nya!), scientists uncovered one of the most deep and meaningful things we’ve ever learned. The universe has a birthday. It wasn’t always here. It began.
OK, that’s two. One more for good measure?
Why can’t we ordinarily see the rainbows in light? Why do we need things like raindrops or spectrum glasses to break up the colors? As I said, that’s because under ordinary conditions all colors of light move at the same speed. But why? It’s because light (visible and invisible light) is something the universe does.
Over a hundred years ago, a scientist named James Clerk Maxwell was playing around with the equations of electricity and the equations of magnetism. He knew there were strange connections between these two phenomena, but neither he nor anyone else understood what those connections were. Maxwell noticed a missing symmetry in one of the equations. When he added that symmetry in, something amazing happened.
Maxwell recognized that he’d created a wave that spread out from the electric and magnetic fields. This wave carried the electric and magnetic fields through space. Its properties depended solely on the way empty space reacts to electric charges and magnetic fields. Change the properties of space, and you change the wave.
But here’s the magical part. Maxwell’s equations showed that the wave he’d just created moved with a single, unique speed. The speed didn’t depend on the size of the electric or magnetic fields, didn’t depend on how they moved or changed, didn’t depend on anything other than the properties of space itself. The speed of the wave was precisely the measured speed of light.
Maxwell had just shown that light, that mysterious substance that lets us see the ocean meet the sky, the Sun coming up over the horizon, or a seven-year-old girl singing before a crowd, is nothing more (and nothing less!) than wiggling electric and magnetic fields. Hold up a magnet and shake it – you’ve just created (invisible) light. Rub a balloon on your head. More invisible light. Light, the weaver of rainbows visible and invisible, is something the universe does.
And that’s The Rainbow Connection.
I have an article in this month’s Odyssey magazine about PLOrk, the Princeton Laptop Orchestra, a group that uses (you guessed it) laptops to make music.
I don’t find it very interesting.
Artists have always used technology to make art – from the technology of colored paint in the caves of France thousands of years ago to the technologies of cell phones, laptops, and YouTube today. While the art might be interesting for art’s sake (or it might not be), I don’t see that the use of technology is intrinsically interesting in itself.
This particular issue of Odyssey is all about the connection between science and art. As this is a subject I think about a lot, you might think I’d find something worthwhile in the issue.
I really don’t.
Here’s why: I think the traditional approach to exploring the supposed interface between art and science is misguided. It turns science into a mere sidelight, not the point. So sure, there’s a ton of science in how a clarinet works, but that’s not the interesting thing about a clarinet. The interesting thing is that when a great clarinetist plays, she can make you think of a beautiful spring day, a person crying in anguish, a mischevious cat (think Peter and the Wolf), or the quiet sadness of unrequited love.
Linking the science of how the air moves in the clarinet is a bit of a cheat. It’s taking something inherently interesting and trying to link your (by implication) uninteresting topic to it. It reminds me of how vegetables are often named after things that taste a lot better than vegetables. Butternut squash. Beefsteak tomatoes. Buttercrunch lettuce. The science of the clarinet.
Instead of the science of art, I’m interested in the art of science. Copenhagen isn’t science. It’s a play about science, scientists, and the worlds they create for themselves. An amazing play.
When Neil de Grasse Tyson talks about supernovas and the stuff that makes us, he isn’t doing science. His subject is science, but his performance is art. He inspires. de Grasse Tyson is an artist. An amazing performer.
When They Might Be Giants sing “Science is Real” they aren’t doing science. They are singing about the joy, wonder, and beauty they’ve found in understanding something about the world. Amazing musicians.
For many years, science has tried to glom on to the arts, like a beefsteak tomato. What I’m much more interested in is the idea that art might start to look to science, and find there a subject worthy in its own right of artistic interpretation.