Saturday, December 30, 2006

Fecundity out of repression

The title is from a thoroughly enjoyable essay by chemists Roald Hoffmann and Pierre Laszlo on scientific conversations:
Here is a question we believe probably one should not ask, especially a young scientist should not ask in a scientific conversation: "Do you understand?" On the face of it, what could be more honest and straightforward? The speaker, who may have just presented a difficult concept, or spoken too quickly, has sensed a nonverbal response on the part of his audience/ listener, and is stating that he or she is willing to explain things again. But the question, unless asked in just the right tone, and between people of equal status or confidence, may be just as problematic as the question "Do you love me?" If it has to be asked, it may be too late.

-"The Say of Things," Hoffmann and Laszlo, Social Research, Fall 1998

I had an interesting question put to me recently about how scientific and literary narratives differ. Since I'm unnecessarily literal and have never written scientific narrative, I went to the library and read some core works in the rhetoric of science. For those in the know, or whose idea of fun needs fine-tuning, that'd be rhetoricians of science like Charles Bazerman, Alan Gross, and Greg Myers, plus a couple of sociologists: Steven Shapin, Bruno Latour.

The reading suggests something interesting, I think, about why science doesn't show up more as an everyday part of conversation in literary fiction. All the writers focus on how scientific journal articles are argumentative, and the writers with a more historical bent look at why and how scientific journal writing developed that way.

The evolution, as these writers tell it, has 17th-c. natural philosophers beginning to argue in print with each others' remarks and suppositions about how nature works, and retreating to increasingly careful and precisely-described experiments to support their claims. Personality recedes in favor of experiment. After a few decades, the scientists leave the pedestrian world of "x works like y," the claims grow broader about the relationships between things in the natural world, and the experiments are designed to support these large statements. The arguments get fiercer, narrower, the scientists' "I" recedes far, far into the background; forms get more rigid, the audiences get more sharply defined. We land in the world of the zillion-endnotes Journal of Scientific Subfield article with heavy combat among referees, editors, and scientists on everything from punctuation to the permissable breadth of claims, given the scientists' place in scientific society.

Sounds like a reasonable enough progression to me, given a mechanistic conception of the universe. If you presume things work in some orderly, objectively explainable fashion, and you say, "It goes like____," someone else will likely argue, and you're off to the races. There can be no legitimate retreat from argument into subjectivity, no fuzzy "This is how I see it," (followed by jumble of half-baked historical references capped with assertion of the artist's absolute right to call it as he feels it). Which is what happens, I think, in worldview arguments in fiction.

So assume that's really how scientific narrative goes. Why, then, would such narratives be amenable to use in fiction? It seems to me that fiction deals mostly with public conversations that are not tightly constructed. What do you owe your mother? Who is a stranger? How is it possible to live with other people? Is there any such thing as a person? Loose ends, hardly anything but loose ends.

If the scientific story says, "X is true, supported by y, z, 3," then I wonder what the novel can do with it. (Particularly since the novelist is not placed to argue with this scientific statement.) The novel can blink and keep walking, which is, I think, what happens most of the time. Or it can say, "Oh, well, if X is true, then the social implications might be ______," which lands you in the realm of speculative fiction. Or -- if it is a more literary novel -- it can lift some aesthetically striking or resonant part of X, ignore the science, and attach social or psychological meanings to the scavenged bit -- the strange horrors of being subject to clocks, for instance. But in none of these is there really conversation between science and the novel.

I'm thinking also of scientific images that end up in mass media, which is where fiction writers generally see them. If scientific images are originally framed for use in argument, I bet it's unlikely the scientists doing external PR try to tear them down and reframe them for other kinds of conversation -- literary conversation, or loose public conversation. I would guess they try instead to repackage the images in either simplified-educational form or art-photo form -- consider Felice Frankel's work. Something that will sell, something that will be recognizeable as science. If this is how it goes, I see no reason to expect that the arguments and conversations implicit in the images -- however strange or beautiful -- would engage well with the world outside professional science's formal combat. Which may be why these images seem so curiously mute, and why they're so difficult to use in stories.

All of this brings me back to Hoffmann and Laszlo's essay, which is about kinds of conversations that go on in chemistry. They are impatient with the dispassionate journal essay, and describe with delight scientific conversations they've known as working chemists -- conversations with nature, conversations with students, conversations with other chemists. At the end they write:
Thinking about real value, if conversation is compensatory of repression—more open just because the written product of scientific work is so constrained—could it be that much more real discovery and creation takes place in conversations? We think so! It is the first place where one expresses understanding outside of the private confines of one's mind. The research group presentation is probably next, the writing of the paper the last, very important, place. The conversation—with a colleague, student to student—is where the ideas get expressed. And until they are expressed, in some way they are not real. The conversation reifies the idea; it selects in the mind of the researcher one possibility of many, it is the first existential act in science.
If these ideas are not already handmaiden to scientific argument -- if they aren't already constrained in the way of the journal article -- then maybe this is a place where novelists should talk with scientists. Maybe this would be more fecund than the novelist's seeing the carefully-produced images in the Tuesday New York Times. I wonder how that would be, and what sort of conversation might be possible.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

The objective is fertile procedure. Is it not?

That's from Donald Hall's interview with Marianne Moore in the Paris Review, 1960. (Hall made much of her Nixon button.) She's talking about the similarities between poets and scientists:

Do the poet and scientist not work analogously? Both are willing to waste effort. To be hard on himself is one of the main strengths of each. Each is attentive to clues, each must narrow the choice, must strive for precision. As George Grosz says, 'In art there is no place for gossip and but a small place for the satirist.' The objective is fertile procedure. Is it not? Jacob Bronowski says in the Saturday Evening Post that science is not a mere collection of discoveries, but that science is the process of discovering. In any case it's not established once and for all; it's evolving.

I'm thinking about 'fertile procedure' after reading Richard Powers' Galatea 2.2. I'll confess that while I like the book as an experiment, and get the impression that he's a remarkably civilized thinker, I don't think it does well as either a novel or an explication of the science to the uninitiated. I won't include spoilers here, but will say generally that there's a literary backstory (incl. character depth, literary musing, rich setting, believably complex emotional lives, even if it's got the liability of a feckless writer character at its heart) that's thematically connected to the SF story dealing with arguments in artificial intelligence. The SF story it's grafted to has markedly flatter character and motivation, and I don't believe that the ideas chewed over are genuinely moving anyone besides the author/protagonist. But. According to Daniel Dennett, he's made tremendously good metaphors for the AI concepts, and returned useful questions and images to scientists. It's also slow. While the science work described is feverish, the book itself is slow, irritatingly slow sometimes, and reflective.

Which puts me in mind of some early-midcentury European novels, except that instead of the ideas and romances being grafted to political stories involving cartoon Communists, there's cartoon SF types. And all of a sudden I think I've been on the wrong track with this book. I'll come back to that, but the question I'll stop with is about who a novel like this is for. If the metaphors surrounding AI are too poeticized-fuzzy, in the novel, to give a clear sense of the arguments & mechanisms to the uninitiated -- and I think in general they are, in Galatea -- is it mainly for scientists, people in the field? I don't mean the question in the accusatory "you write only for the elite, you hate the common people!" Marxist-listmaker vein, but it hadn't occurred to me before that there might be literary fictions aimed mainly at scientists in the field. It seems to me a bit cramped, but maybe that's wrong and it's actually extremely useful, a narrow hall opening onto a vast expanse.

Friday, August 25, 2006


Yes, I know, it's 'metaphor', but after listening to Joseph Campbell talking for hours about metafers -- abstracted Jennifers, I'm sure -- that circuit's fried.

Anyway. I've been thinking about science metaphors and the agonies over poetic writers retailing bad metaphors. By 'bad' I mean scientifically inaccurate.

It seems to me there are at least two kinds of science metaphors, though, that we're talking about. One is the sort of metaphor that helps a scientist explain their work; for instance, nanotech people have conferences with illustrators so they can generate visual metaphors for the work. Something people can understand. So this is metaphor that's about what's happening in the lab.

But I think there is another kind of metaphor, one that's rather looser about the science, and it's to do with how science filters through in ordinary lives, in the way that Roberta experiences it, say. Updike did something memorable with it in Rabbit Redux, I think, where the elder Mrs. Angstrom is on L-dopa for Parkinson's, and there's a long dank frightening section involving the plumbing in her mind, and backed-up sewers. I'll find and quote it. I suppose you could call it the subjective experience of science as it's lived. If you wanted to be particularly boring about it. I think Updike did better, though, in creating an iconic turn-you-to-stone image in Toward the End of Time
: the half-built international space station, a ghostly, unshakable moon in the daytime sky, abandoned as war broke out, and those aboard left to die. A permanent reminder of Not Finishing and the cruelty. Let me see if I can find Updike's description, which is no doubt better:

...If the first occupies, like the sun, a half-degree of the celestial hemisphere's 180 degrees, this second is no wider than a sixth of a degree. It has a honeycomb appearance, with a pair of scarcely visible appendages, stubby dragonfly wings.

This moon was man-made -- a space station set in orbit three thousand miles above the Earth, one-hundredth of the first moon's distance, by men before the Sino-Aerican Conflict dissolved the governments able to maintain the shuttle ships. Earth abandoned its satellite, and the colonists marooned there survived for a time amid their tons of provisions and their solar-powered greenhouses. Then, as the world watched in horror the television broadcasts that were maintained with the generators' last volts of energy, the space-dwellers one by one died. This episode, beocme mythic, has inspired any number of bathetic retellings in the popular media, even if all of us who dwell on Earth are in a position exactly the same, if on a larger scale. Indeed, it is not impossible that the colony, in its giant honeycomb of hollow struts and exquisitely stretched sheets of insulating foil, still holds a few live crewpersons, surviving on protein tablets....

That's richer, anyway. I do think it's time for "watched in horror" to go away. I just used that in a mawkish lead-in to a piece on Feynman's Challenger O-ring demo, a piece on summarizing for a 9th-grade textbook. Funny thing, the K-12 ed biz, picking someone like me to teach summarizing. Illustrative of the problems, I'd say.

Anyway. It's nice, isn't it, that space station. Nothing new about ghost ships, but they're a little 17th-c, and lose meaning. Especially when they're not hanging in the sky every day. In this one you get the colonizing-space excitement, and the technical prowess, and their daily lived reality, while below the ordinary, dirty old Updike protag crunches around in his frozen Boston suburb, conscious of his age and the sense of having seen plenty, and not primarily concerned with outer space.

So what have scientists to do with all that? Well, I don't know. It seems to me there ought to be at least some looking back from good fictional science-as-it's-lived (SAIL) metaphor to fresh-from-the-lab (FFTL) metaphor. And some conversation between them. I bet there's some pretty good dissonance there, routinely. How would that be useful? Good question. Not sure yet. But it does seem to me that if the SAIL metaphor is going to be coherent and incisive – because one way or the other, I think, it’s going to be a critique, or fodder for critique -- it ought to envelop a crisp understanding of the FFTL metaphor and anything that’s crucial to understanding the science.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Land ho! Get your pants on.

You know, I don't like the obligatory blogger "sorry I'm late" handwringing. It'll likely go on for a while, though, since my husband's disability checks may stop abruptly next month, and I have no intention of putting our 2-year-old in fulltime daycare. The more I look at it, the less reasonable it looks to put a kid in institutional care for ten hours a day until the child's at least eight or nine. (Or 78. I don't want to be in institutional care either.) Eating's a nice hobby, though, so I may be busy selling our house in a few weeks, and finding us cheap digs. I've also got book proposal deadlines coming up, so expect the sporadic posting to continue.

I've been thinking that, as much as I enjoy the straight pop-science reading, it's leading me away from questions about how bits of scientific thought and assumptions permeate our ordinary consciousness. How people live with science day-to-day, misinterpreting what they've heard, having headlines lodged in their sense of how the world works, knitting mechanistic implications of medicine to bits of theology and philosophy and women's magazines, that kind of thing.

So I'm thinking it's time to talk with nonscientists who deal with large numbers of people and science. Politicians (think constituents' reactions to environmental/NIMBY projects, like power generating station near houses and water pollution), hospital chaplains (think patients trying to figure out why they're sick and what it means), psychiatrists (how do patients work out the relationships between brain and self?), dietitians (why do people believe they're fat?), teachers (how are their administrators looking at evolution and why?). People in that kind of position. I've got some chats arranged with a chaplain and a psychiatrist, and I'll let you know what they have to say.

I'm also thinking it'd be good to talk with some SF writers about the questions around which their own stories revolve.

I've been on a Malamud kick recently, and it strikes me that the book I'm reading now -- God's Grace -- involves the kind of consciousness of science in literary fiction that I've been talking about. The book begins with a nuclear holocaust and an almost-hapless survivor, paleologist Calvin Cohn, who was doing research at the bottom of the ocean when the bombs went off. Surfacing & climbing back onto his boat, he found himself the only survivor. This was verified by God, who apologized for the error & assured Cohn his time was up too. And then, for whatever His reasons, dragged His feet about knocking off Cohn. Cohn found he wasn't quite alone; there was an intelligent, proselytizing Christian lab chimp on his boat, and that's all the spoilers I'll give. But it's a literate book, and the focus does not appear to be on the science gear, important as it is to the story.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Science fiction means what we point to when we say it

What's literary fiction? What's science fiction?

My father's been reading Alan Lightman's Einstein's Dreams, and tells me he found Einstein's apparent lack of filter, lack of ordinary sense of the reasonableness of ideas, very interesting. He said he thought every high school student should read it, if only to see the value of being so free, mentally, from ordinary constraints. When I think of Lightman, I think mostly of his book Origins, which I enjoyed very much, and of attending a small, awkward reading of Good Benito. I'd been surprised at the reading; the quality of the prose didn't seem to me very good, didn't seem to me to reflect the man's intelligence or subtlety of mind, which I think are easy to see in his nonfiction.

My father thought I was being a pain in the ass. He told me to get past the quality of the prose and look at the ideas, which is something I've been doing lately in reading recommended SF. It occurred to me that most of the conversation I've heard praising SF has indeed been about the ideas, often complex and powerful ideas, and often with a sense of clarity and cool interrogation that makes me think hypothesis. Poetry, a literate, sustained, fine-art sense of language and what it can do, doesn't seem to be a requisite part of the show, and I think it is very much in what I think of as literary.

There are enough disgruntled blog discussions of "what is literary" that I suspect it hasn't got a long life ahead of it as a genre. (See here and here, for example.) The question "what is art", though, attracts the same sense of frustration and annoyance, and I don't think it's going away. Wikipedia's prudent entry points out that the definition of "literary merit" is important legally, but otherwise doesn't want to get involved.

I wonder if the relative importance of ideas and poetry are real differences between literary and SF, and a reason why there's this low-grade antagonism. I wonder if champions of each are simply blind to what the others see as valuable.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

an actual sign

The Koch poem:

One Train May Hide Another

(sign at a railroad crossing in Kenya)

In a poem, one line may hide another line,
As at a crossing, one train may hide another train.
That is, if you are waiting to cross
The tracks, wait to do it for one moment at
Least after the first train is gone. And so when you read
Wait until you have read the next line --
Then it is safe to go on reading.
In a family one sister may conceal another,
So, when you are courting, it's best to have them all in view
Otherwise in coming to find one you may love another.
One father or one brother may hide the man,
If you are a woman, whom you have been waiting to love.
So always standing in front of something the other
As words stand in front of objects, feelings, and ideas.
One wish may hide another. And one person's reputation may hide
The reputation of another. One dog may conceal another
On a lawn, so if you escape the first one you're not necessarily safe;
One lilac may hide another and then a lot of lilacs and on the Appia Antica one tomb
May hide a number of other tombs. In love, one reproach may hide another,
One small complaint may hide a great one.
One injustice may hide another -- one Colonial may hide another,
One blaring red uniform another, and another, a whole column. One bath may hide another bath
As when, after bathing, one walks out into the rain
One idea may hide another: Life is simple
Hide Life is incredibly complex, as in the prose of Gertrude Stein
One sentence hides another and is another as well. And in the laboratory
One invention may hide another invention,
One evening may hide another, one shadow, a nest of shadows,
One dark red, or one blue, or one purple -- this is a painting
By someone after Matisse. One waits at the tracks until they pass,
These hidden doubles or, sometimes, likenesses. One identical twin
May hide the other. And there may be even more in there! The obstetrician
Gazes at the Valley of the Var. We used to live there, my wife and I, but
One life hid another life. And now she is gone and I am here.
A vivacious mother hides a gawky daughter. The daughter hides
Her own vivacious daughter in turn. They are in
A railway station and the daughter is holding a bag
Bigger than her mother's bag and successfully hides it.
In offering to pick up the daughter's bag one finds oneself confronted by the mother's
And has to carry that one, too. So one hitchhiker
May deliberately hide another and one cup of coffee
Another, too, until one is over-excited. One love may hide another love or the same love
As when "I love you" suddenly rings false and one discovers
The better love lingering behind, as when "I'm full of doubts"
Hides "I'm certain about something and it is that"
And one dream may hide another as is well known, always, too. In the garden of Eden
Adam and Eve may hide the real Adam and Eve.
Jerusalem may hide another Jerusalem.
When you come to something, stop to let it pass
So you can see what else is there. At home, no matter where,
Internal tracks pose dangers, too; one memory
Certainly hides another, that being what memory is all about,
The eternal reverse succession of contemplated entities. Reading A Sentimental Journey look around
When you have finished, for Tristram Shandy, to see
If it is standing there, it should be, stronger
And more profound and theretofore hidden as Santa Maria Maggiore
May be hidden by similar churches inside Rome. One sidewalk
May hide another, as when you're asleep there, and
One song hide another song: for example "Stardust"
Hide "What Have They Done to the Rain?" Or vice versa. A pounding upstairs
Hide the beating of drums. One friend may hide another, you sit at the foot of a tree
With one and when you get up to leave there is another
Whom you'd have preferred to talk with all along. One teacher,
One doctor, one ecstasy, one illness, one woman, one man
May hide another. Pause to let the first one pass.
You think, Now it is safe to cross and you are hit by the next one.
It can be important
To have waited at least a moment to see what was already there.

Friday, April 28, 2006

the working skeleton of all our thought

Here is Searle on science v. art and social sciences, and you can see immediately why this kind of thing makes Midgley crazy. He's talking about how tough it is to explain minds in a physical universe, and this comes under "Psychological and Social Explanation":
One of the most disappointing features of the intellectual history of the last hundred years was the failure of the social sciences to achieve the rich explanatory power characteristic of the physical and biological sciences. In sociology, or even economics, we do not have the kind of established knowledge structures that we have in physics and chemistry. Why not? Why have the methods of the natural sciences not had the kind of payoff in the study of human behavior and human social relations that they have had in the physical sciences?

I say "science v. art" because there's no mention of art as richly, powerfully explanatory of human behavior and society. Nor do I see any mention of art (of any kind) or artists in the index. Searle might recognize this use of art in his other writings; I don't know. But I'll point out that the last hundred years saw the rise of a new kind of novel, the psychological drama, which is centered in the protagonist's minutely rendered consciousness and has crowded out nearly every other kind of story (to the exhaustion and irritation of many). The yield of modern archetypes includes Rabbit Angstrom, Stephen Daedalus, Yossarian, Holden Caulfield, among many others. A fictional archetype is a human model, widely recognized as true.

While novels aren't explanatory in the sense that you can nab a random passenger off the subway and use Holden Caulfield to explain how she'll behave, they do show, psychologically, how these types come to be in a mess, what the mess means, how they try to get out, and what that means. Psychologically, socially, philosophically, -ally. While allowing other, unwritten meanings.

Anyway. I think Midgley's cane-thumping reply to Searle's question would be that we already have impressive knowledge structures in nonphysical science, usually derided as folk wisdom. Here she is on that:
Consciousness is not something rare and exotic found only in experimental subjects or in scientific observers. Nor does it only show us a few special phenomena such as colours and dreams and hallucinations. It is not primarily an observation-station. It is the crowded scene of our daily lives. And the main dramas going on in it do not concern just observation or perception but quite complex, dynamic currents of feeling and efforts to act. If we mean to do justice to this complexity, we have to take seriously the rich, well-organised language which we use about it every day. That language does not just express an amateur 'folk-psychology'. It is the indispensable working skeleton of all our thought -- including, of course, our thought about science.

-p. 85, Science and Poetry

I think she'd also point out that in the last hundred years the social sciences have been deformed by the political power of modern physical sciences, with social scientists trying to do away with any smell of subjectivity. Often grotesquely.

One more shock in this Searle book, so far:
The underlying impulse of functionalism was to answer the question, Why do we attribute mental states [like pain, or the conviction that Denver is the capital of Colorado] to people at all? And the answer was, we say they have such things as beliefs and desires because we want to explain their behavior.

Which is not, to my mind, a usual answer in art. There are questions about behavior in art, yes, but there are also questions of experience. What it feels like to be human, what it might be like for someone else (and through that, ourselves), or for ourselves in another life. I don't know whether Searle is being fair here to functionalists. If he is, I'd say it's a good reason for artists to go have lunch with philosophers.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

as at a crossing, one train may hide another train

I'm very slowly pulling together some campus talk here at the University of Iowa on science, art, and literary fiction, which is part of why I'd started this blog. I wanted a space for hashing out related ideas with other people and looking for ways of having fruitful conversations among artists and scientists, and I hoped it'd change my mind about how to host real-life conversations.

I think that's happening -- I think this is softening me up. Originally I'd had a teacherish eat-your-veg view, where the lack of talk between scientists and artists disturbed me, and I wanted to sort of mash the two groups together. (The fascist preschooler in me is very hardy.) But thanks to conversations like this one, and articles on other two-cultures sites like Lablit, I'm starting to suspect we're better off if the artists who show up are already genuinely interested in science, scientists, the culture of science. Which shows I'm slow, but this is not new. Anyway, thanks to commenters.

I've started reading John Searle's Mind and it's made me suspicious of some of my favorite childhood thoughts. I spent most of fourth grade, which was less than engaging, studying my hands, peeling Elmer's glue off them, and wondering how it was I could move them just by wanting to. Searle raises that question in his introduction (minus glue) and points out that it assumes a distinct mind and body, and I see that at nine I assumed mind and body were separate. I don't anymore, so I have a feeling I'll sit by while he dismantles something I've got no stake in, but I'm curious to see what he's got to say about materialism and what he calls "emergentism as it is standardly conceived."

My daughter sounds like she's wrecking my bed as it is standardly conceived, so that's it for now. The poem is Kenneth Koch's "One Train May Hide Another"; I'll quote it later.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

she will be bound with garlands of her own editor Jennifer Rohn, writing about a science/art project at CERN, says:

[Physicist Rolf] Landua is a firm believer in the power of art to help science, namely when it serves as PR.

Which says to me the project is bound to disappoint, and at best be wildly inefficient. We've had a conversation recently on lablit about the expectation that young scientists must produce, chop-chop, or leave the bench, and why young writers aren't treated the same way. Neurograd wrote:
Correct me if I'm wrong, but writing students pay their own tuition for the most part, right? So, if someone is willing to shell out the $150k for a writing degree, I would say that's their prerogative, and if they want/need to take longer to finish that degree, then so be it. But if I were a professor, department, or funding agency and I were paying for a student's tuition (plus a stipend to boot), I would expect that a reasonable level of productivity should be maintained.

Add that sense of responsibility to funding to a sense that people will be much friendlier to science if only they understand it, and I think there's a slow train wreck waiting to happen in any such sci/art programs.

I don't know that the scientists involved understand this is not work with reliable freelancers, people who get a contract and feel obliged to turn out a certain kind of product. That there's no knowing what an artist might do with exposure to science that's meant to enlighten them and turn them into champions. Yes, you might get something useful as PR out of it, though if it's any good it's unlikely it'll be useful PR for anything. It might also be entirely irrelevant to CERN or whatever other agency is involved; it might be openly hostile to the agency's projects; it might deeply misinterpret the work.

I think these projects are best off involving artists already seriously interested in science and philosophy of science. Even then, PR, no, the work's not likely to be PR. A helpful complication, maybe.

The poem is Keats' "On the Sonnet":
If by dull rhymes our English must be chain'd,
And, like Andromeda, the Sonnet sweet
Fetter'd, in spite of pained loveliness;
Let us find out, if we must be constrain'd,
Sandals more interwoven and complete
To fit the naked foot of poesy;
Let us inspect the lyre, and weigh the stress
Of every chord, and see what may be gain'd
By ear industrious, and attention meet;
Misers of sound and syllable, no less
Than Midas of his coinage, let us be
Jealous of dead leaves in the bay-wreath crown;
So, if we may not let the Muse be free,
She will be bound with garlands of her own.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

so far beyond the casual solitudes

I'd written:
The essays I'm reading on science and myth all seem to have one thing in common: They go from molecules to politics without stopping off at the level of two people sitting and talking, each regarding the other. I wonder if it's because literary fiction -- which is at the level of two people sitting and talking -- largely ignores the molecules, but politics does not.

Doh. Of course the discussion skips the two-people-talking level. Two people talking is subjective. Deals with all that baffling, suspect "I" stuff. And, worse, "you". The eco/econ/international-relations policy level is objective and model-based, just like talk about molecules and organisms. In eco/econ/IR you're talking about masses of people, and what to do to and with them.

Btw, today's title is from Wallace Stevens's Re-statement of Romance:
The night knows nothing of the chants of night.
It is what it is as I am what I am:
And in perceiving this I best perceive myself

And you. Only we two may interchange
Each in the other what each has to give.
Only we two are one, not you and night,

Nor night and I, but you and I, alone,
So much alone, so deeply by ourselves,
So far beyond the casual solitudes,

That night is only the background of our selves,
Supremely true each to its separate self,
In the pale light that each upon the other throws.

I could hardly resist two lines from another poem, Bantams in Pine-Woods:
Fat! Fat! Fat! Fat! I am the personal.
Your world is you. I am my world.

But frankly I'm not that interested in chicken consciousness.

We've had tornadoes here. F-2 level, meaning winds over 150 mph, meaning enough wind to smash brick churches and cinderblock garages, snap 80-year-old trees, suck cars off the tops of parking ramps and drop them on the streets. (One car has not been found.) You can see pictures here. We're fine at our house, though. Closest tornado passed about a mile south of us. No damage here even to the tulips. The 2-year-old reckons our house is not actually strong enough to keep out tornadoes, and is troubled by it when she remembers, turning over how it might come out all right, remembering that broken houses get fixed and we can keep safe downstairs. She's very interested in watching the crews clean up and fix everything damaged.

I'm from weak-hurricane country, not tornado country, so I hadn't understood before why you want to be as deep inside, preferably under, the house as you can be. Especially if the house might fall on you. I hadn't counted on the missiles, like wood planks the tornadoes drive straight through house walls or four feet into the ground. Basements, yes, good idea.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

if I were you and you were me

The essays I'm reading on science and myth all seem to have one thing in common: They go from molecules to politics without stopping off at the level of two people sitting and talking, each regarding the other. I wonder if it's because literary fiction -- which is at the level of two people sitting and talking -- largely ignores the molecules, but politics does not.

It's a funny gap, anyway, and I'll have to look around to see what else lives on that level. Philosophy, maybe. Maybe religion. I'd say psychology, but what I've seen of the transactional variety is so model-bound as to be stupid about how people live and behave.

Anyway, if you've got reading suggestions, send 'em along.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

when it is seemly and when one is fit to receive

The title's from James Lovelock's The Ages of Gaia; Lovelock is the English tinker-scientist who developed the Gaia idea while at NASA JPL. The quote in full:
When I first saw Gaia in my mind I felt as an astronaut must have done as he stood on the Moon, gazing back at our home, the Earth. Thinking of the Earth as alive makes it seem, on happy days, in the right places, as if the whole planet were celebrating a sacred ceremony. Being on the Earth brings that same special feeling of comfort that attaches to the celebration of any religion when it is seemly and one one is fit to receive.

(I don't know enough to have a position on Gaia, for or against or inbetween, so leave me alone with your crystals.)

What strikes me about the passage, and about other scientist/science-writers' excerpts in a strange little MIT texty-anthology called From Gaia to Selfish Genes, is that it does not carry a sense of breakneck speed. It's also literary. True, it's about ecology, and as I noted in my reply to Michael, ecology writing is the one place I've reliably found science writing that's slow and poetic. But the excerpt I've read so far in this book are from the 70s through the early 90s, and they're reminding me of other, older scientist-writers who are, or were, not so much ecologists as humanists: Jacob Bronowski, Roald Hoffman, Carl Sagan. Speed is not the great mark of their work, I don't think. So I wonder how far this current sense of speed is simply a recent fashion. Frankly, I wonder how much of it is in imitation of Feynman, who has a very quick prose and the kind of urging-on feel you get from people who are extremely bright, the kind who are impatient with the slowness of words and people who are slow to grasp the obvious. But I have never gotten the sense, reading Feynman, that he was agog at the science. I don't hear what Midgley calls the "mad cheerfulness" of Dawkins and many other contemporary science writers. Again, fundamentally, he sounded to me like a humanist, with a profound sense of human experience, and a sense that there would be no point to doing science or anything else without it.

The mad cheerfulness is, to me, still quite appealing. I like it in Dawkins and Brooks; I like in in Pekka Himanen's The Hacker Ethic, too. There's a springiness and a sense of every day a birthday, and that's altogether lacking in literary fiction, which seems to require misery.

I am thinking of Italo Calvino's Six Memos for the Next Millenium, the lectures he was working on just before his death for the Charles Eliot Norton lectures in '85-86. They describe and support the literary qualities he thought important at the end of his life, and the five completed essays were on lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, and multiplicity; there was to be a sixth on consistency. Mad cheer is not one of them, and neither is naive delight, but the recent popular science I've read does certainly strike me as either quick, light, and alert to multiplicity, or ploddingly trying for those qualities. I read the essays long ago and don't remember them; I'll have to reread them now.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

all the little hatchets that came up

I've been listening online and on NPR to fiction writers/poets and scientists, trying to talk to each other about how science works in literary fiction and poetry. So far it's been a complete bust. Characteristic was an exchange between a poet and a quantum-computing guy on NPR on Friday. The poet, petulant, demanded to know how quantum computing was going to be fantastic and revolutionary and change her life, and the science guys were so excited a poet had called that they started grasping at how poetic quarks are. Once again: Poet talking about a person (even if herself); scientists talking about quarks.

Also characteristic was a discussion I had with an advisor to the University of Iowa's Literature, Science and the Arts program, during which he kept trying to hook me up with nonfiction and science-fiction writers -- anything that had to do with writing. The idea of literary fiction as a separate discipline wasn't really there. Towards the end he looked sort of baffled and said he didn't really hear much from non-SF fiction people.

It occurred to me that a primary quality of the science writing I've read, by scientists and nonscientists, is of breakneck speed. Terrific enthusiasm, terrific pushing-ahead, and a tangible sense that this is very exciting but there's a lot of work to do, and we're on our way to something. In what I've seen of science, too, there's pressing, pressing, pressing ahead, scheduling the experiments, at the edge of the chair for results for the next paper, the next conference. I don't see that there's time for chewing over the words and making perfect sentence. This is is not, as far as I've known, the mood of poetry and literary fiction writing. Both are contemplative and reflective, and demand perfect sentences, or as close as you know how to make them. And maybe this difference in how we work is a real impediment when we try to talk.

I'm looking at the little bookshelf in my office, and -- well, here are two science writers, two literary writers. John McGahern first, by way of memorial, from his novel The Dark opened at random:
You went the same road back, rage seething, and failure. People had to go among people, they needed other people, yet they couldn't be easy, all the little hatchets that came up. Wouldn't it be better for them to stay alone in the fields and rooms, and let the world come or pass in whatever shape it would? Why couldn't the Ryans listen to you tell them that Joan was leaving and no more, instead of driving knives at you, and why had you the same urge to knife them back? Then you couldn't think when you imagined that meek bastard alone with her in the bathroom.

And here is Wallace Stevens ("The Ultimate Poem Is Abstract"):

This day writhes with what? The lecturer
On This Beautiful World Of Ours composes himself
And hems the planet rose and haws it ripe,

And red, and right. The particular question -- here
The particular answer to the particular question
Is not in point -- the question is in point.

What's important there, the language, not just the vision but the language, because without having the language right the exactness and depth of the peculiar vision won't be there. Here by contrast is Dawkins, using language not to paint but to illustrate:

So what do we mean by a miracle? A miracle is something that happens, but which is exceedingly surprising. If a marble statue of the Virgin Mary suddenly waved its hand at us we should treat it as a miracle, because all our experience and knowledge tells us that marble doesn't behave like that.

(I was going to quote from a book called The Abacus, which a publisher's rep gave me years ago and which I've been carting around ever since, but it's terrible, and I see I ought to throw it out instead of inflicting it on you.)

Anyway. The difference between illlustration and painting might not be a terrible metaphor. Maybe the closest analogue between science writing and literary fiction might be when the science is new and exists only in the mind of the scientist. At that point the scientist is not trying to illustrate something that's already out in the world and understood, if understood in various ways, but is trying to paint some reality which, at that moment, only he can see.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

nerve pills and Ted Chiang

Before I apologize for the Midgleython: I did read some stories of Ted Chiang's, and enjoyed them, but I don't think they're literary. The prose is lively, he's got some good natural swing, he's clever and has some interesting ideas, but I don't feel the power of the English language in his writing. It's neither poetry nor fine rhetoric. Which is no tragedy, but I don't think his writing should be held up as an example of literary science fiction. And it's possible that he's got more literary work than what I've read, but I don't think literary writers generally turn it on and off like that; I think you're a poet or you ain't. Which, again, is fine. I'm reading one of Asimov's autobios, and he's got this to say about literary writing:

The trouble with writing poetically is that if you hit the target, the result is beautiful; if you miss, it is rotten. Poetic writers are usually uneven. A prosaic writer like me, who consistently misses the heights, also avoids the depths.

I think that's true. On request, though, just because I'm a pedant, I'll do a side-by-side comparison of literary and Ted, and then people can get hysterical about that, if they want to. But I think it's probably not worthwhile.

(What kind of a snobby reader am I, anyway? The kind that largely agrees with Harold Bloom about Harry Potter, but mostly likes Bloom's headline: "Can 35 Million Book Buyers Be Wrong? Yes." There, now I've alienated all six of you.)

Anyway, about Midgley: I hadn't meant to turn this into the Mary Midgley Hour, but she writes seriously, and without appeals to God, about why we shouldn't believe Rodney Brooks (remember Rodney Brooks?) when he says we're machines and no different from any other kind of biological machines, possibly no different in any important way from any other kind of machine, period. And why Dawkins is wrong when he says that science is the only way we have of understanding the world. So I'm taking my time reading her book, and doing something that's unusual for me, scribbling arguments all over it. I don't usually write in books, but hers needs a conversation.

Hang on, I've got to go tell the shrink I don't want any more Xanax. Half a pill and I felt like one of those things you poke with a stick and it doesn't move. To think people build an empire on this.

Monday, March 27, 2006

the narrow throne of reality

Midgley on why talk about the self sounds flaky and unscientific:
Metaphysical materialism [the idea that the biochemistry is all there is to life] got into European thought in the first place as a weapon used, first by the early atomists and then by political campaigners such as Hobbes, against the dominance of religion. In modern times the prime motivation behind it was horror and indignation at the religious wars and persecutions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and its main target was the notion of the soul as a distinct entity capable of surviving death....this social and political motivation was quite close to that of the ancient atomists, who were also moved by outrage at disastrous religious practices.

This motivation was a suitable one for forging a weapon in campaigns against the churches. But it was much less able to provide a balanced foundation for the whole of science, let alone for a general understanding of life. For that wider understanding, change and interaction needed to be seen as intelligible in their own terms and the first-person aspect of life had to be taken seriously as well as the objective one.

Descartes notoriously saw this last problem and made a magnificent attempt to deal with it by making mind or consciousness the starting point for his systematic doubt. He did succeed in getting subjectivity finally onto the philosophers' agenda, but for a long time they were puzzled about what to do with it. Descartes still described mind ontologically, not as a first-person aspect or point of view but as a substance, something parallel to physical matter but separate from it and not intelligibly connected with it.

This kind of dualism had the fatal effect of making mind look to many scientists like an extra kind of stuff, not like one aspect (among many) of the real world but like a rival substance competing with matter for the narrow throne of reality. This vision inclined scientifically-minded people to sign up for an ideology called materialism, meaning by that not just allegiance to matter but in some sense disbelief in mind. The idea of the two as rivals for the status of reality persisted. Mind was seen as an awkward non-material entity which perhaps ought to be removed with Occam's Razor, one which was certainly too exotic meanwhile to deserve serious scientific attention. And alarm about it went particularly deep in the social sciences, which were becoming increasingly sensitive about their scientific status.

This is why, through much of the twentieth century, scientists, both social and physical, in English-speaking countries were extraordinarily careful to avoid any mention of subjectivity and particularly of consciousness....

Which sounds grand and sensible, but I'm still waiting for Midgley to admit that the physical stuff generates mind, rather than saying, "These are aspects of human life which must be considered together in understanding what we are." I understand her impatience with the idea that we're windup toys, and that we're helpless to our biological fate. I like her attempt, later in the book, at arguing that mere physical state does not push our actions; our own conscious thought does. But the thoughts must come from somewhere, and must be part of the physical system somehow. As important as the subjective experience is, and as real as I consider it to be, her arguments do not, so far, persuade me that it drives us as powerfully as other parts of the chemical machinery do. Or that mind is a special kind of emergent property, different from all others, and more important in its effect on the organism. Which is saying something, since I've spent most of my adult life writing fiction, or contemplating subjective experience.

Last week I tried Xanax, a benzodiazepine prescribed for anxiety. Subjectively: It's an abomination, emotional Botox, but it sure does work. I took half the minimum prescribed dose and within half an hour had a heavily anesthetized gut feel. No adrenaline, not even in the middle of a quarrel with my husband -- which I made up by saying, "Was this really so important?" No spring in the feet, no fight. The drug left me with an overwhelming sense of Whatever, and I can't imagine that under its influence I would, say, mount a political campaign, or bother flossing my teeth, or find television inane enough to turn off.

I mention this because it's a dramatic example of what seems to me an ordinary reality. While my thoughts influence my action, so does my gut feel, my physical sense of excitability, dread, paralysis, calm, anesthesia. It seems to me obvious that the biochemistry influences this physical sense and the thoughts and action that stem from it, and so far I am not seeing Midgley account for this ordinary experience.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Who you calling a semi-illusion?

Midgley quotes Dawkins on what selves are:

The individual organism is not exactly an illusion. It is too concrete for that. But it is a secondary, derived phenomenon, cobbled together as a consequence of the actions of fundamentally separate, even warring agents. I shan't develop the idea but just float the idea of a comparison with memes. Perhaps the subjective 'I', the person that I feel myself to be, is the same kind of semi-illusion....The subjective feeling of 'somebody in there' may be a cobbled, emergent, semi-illusion analagous to the individual body emerging in evolution from the uneasy co-operation of genes.

Midgley is very sharp about this idea that higher-level functions like mind, or individual organisms -- both of them cobbled, emergent -- are not as real as their constituent and creating particles are. And obviously I agree with her, since just a few weeks ago I wrote:

But I don't know that "emergent" and "illusory" are necessarily the same thing. If you are willing to assign selfhood a level of mythic reality, whatever it may spring from, then you are going out to lunch with Teresa, not the illusion of Teresa. Even though you may be aware, if you are inclined to think about these things as you pick the olives out of your salad, that at some level of pre-organization there is no Teresa with lipstick on her teeth, only quantum biochemistry fizzing around in some humanly unimaginable way.

Why do I care? Whatever Roberta Rae imagines people are, surely that sense affects how she deals with them, and how she views herself. My own sense of what people are must affect both the story and the way I write the characters. If I believe Roberta is a semi-illusion, but the idea would never occur to her, then I have a problem: Do I write her as a benighted character? Why, and how do I avoid condescension? Should I write her diffidently, as someone who might be right? If so, how do I negotiate my own visceral sense of what people are? However I do it, I want to be fairly clear about what I believe and why, and what Roberta Rae believes and why, and how the views argue with each other.

Why might nonrepresentational artists want to think about these things? In 1998 I went to see the Rothko show at the Whitney, and saw for the first time his black paintings. The room where they hung was an obvious sanctuary, and I sat looking at them for a long time. I felt they showed, as fact, an inhuman universe, and yet they answered some human groping for sacredness in a rich and unusually articulate way. They had authority. What strikes me now is how specific and articulate they were about both that universal absence of human importance and the sense of sacredness, which was so immediately palpable it made people sit down and be quiet. I doubt an artist comes to that sense of reality accidentally or casually.

Anyway. I imagine Dawkins would dismiss "assigning selfhood a level of mythic reality" as a poetic (and self-delusional) view that doesn't reflect known fact: there is known biochemistry, and nobody has to arbitrarily assign reality to it. Meantime there is no objectively provable "I". But Midgley says Dawkins and others who think like him are children in the grip of philosophical fashion. Next time I'll post her short history of scientific squeamishness about "I"'s reality.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

I feel scientific, oh so scientific

So I lied. Reposted from the Lab Lit forum:


I don't know that arts and science are that far apart in individual minds. It could well be that many artists would turn into scientists, and maybe vice-versa, if certain things were suppressed. I had a back injury some years ago and ended up on a subclinical tricyclic dose as a pain modality, and it wrecked my writing. The emotional perceptions weren't as acute, my language was duller & slower. So I stopped trying to write and instead did chem and system admin. All that systematizing stuff was suddenly much more interesting than it had been before. Granted, I wasn't very good at either of them, still too jumpy & qualitative (and I've forgotten most of it now). But I wonder now what would've happen if we'd upped the dose.

Not that I'm willing to experiment, now that I'm off the stuff.


That's rather freaky! But I suppose no more freaky than Oliver Sachs-eque tales of people receiving head injuries and then suddenly believing in God - or losing their faith. You really felt more scientific on drugs? I guess lithium can cause bipolar people to lose their creative spark too.


I never really thought of it that way (I feel scientific, oh so scientific...) but I certainly felt calmer, more interested in how things went together step-by-step, less distracted by the force & intensity of how things feel. For me, that intensity is tied to verbal acuity, so the usual speed & sharpness in naming things also went away. It's also tied to the ability to make swift connections between various experiences, emotional states, views of moments. I just felt slow & rather dull in those respects, on the drugs. I was also aware that the people doing real science had a swiftness with nonhuman abstractions that I don't have at all.

Mind, I was only doing undergrad science at best, so although it did get exciting and possibly even creative for me at a few points, I'm not sure I know what "feeling scientific" is. It might be more accurate to say that I was calm enough to sit still for it, unmolested enough by emotional experience, and bright enough not to be terrible at chemistry at an undergrad level. I might have made a decent mid-level career of it if those had been my normal settings, probably tied to administration or policy.

A few years ago I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and thought the groovy/systems distinction was a useful one. I was almost permanently bewildered as a kid, could not figure out how anything went start to finish or what one bit of a process had to do with another. Frequently failed to notice processes existed, even when I was in the middle of them. I just didn't think of things in terms of how they were put together. Was much too busy with the experience of little chunks. "Red. Smooth. That fabric is criminal and making me ill, how can that woman not notice? I can see the fibers in the paper, the blue line is unexpectedly hopeful." I don't think I started thinking of things in terms of systems, or of the existence of systems, until I was in my 20s. And I'm still fairly oblivious.


I just remembered the title credit sequence for The Sopranos -- it's really true to my experience. We used to drive Pennsylvania-NYC once or twice a month when I was a kid, and I don't know how many hundreds of times we made the trip, but I left for college with absolutely no idea how to get from PA to NYC. No concept of a highway system; the on- and off-ramps were mysterious to me. You're on one road, then you're on another, that's all. All I noticed along the way was the way the highway looked, the light reflected in house windows, tired siding, the giant menacing smoothness of tanks in the tank farms, store signs, cut rock along the highway, etc. The Sopranos sequence is exactly right.

The Prof:

The Sopranos sequence is indeed a work of high art. I have the episodes on DVD and I never fast-forward through it.

I think what you are describing is very accurate as far as science thinking - and so nice to have such a right-brained description of it as well. Drugs...well, if autism is a perturbation of the mind then why not a pharmacological equivalent?

Read more of this thread at Lab Lit.

Monday, March 06, 2006

time out

I'm trying to get a story out and probably won't post till the 15th. Meantime there's a few posts down there looking lonely, so please comment or hijack. When I come back there'll probably be elaboration on the idea of fault and the line between blind biological drive and will.

Monday, February 27, 2006


So there's Roberta Rae in her nightgown, thinking uncharitable things about her sister (who's not fooling anybody with that age-defying chemical skin scrub) and the beau who've waved off the offer of a guest room and instead are staying at the La Quinta Inn on the highway, leaving her in a solitude that takes up space in the bedroom like some big man who talks too loud when he drinks, and behind that solitude is the slowly-souring tumor. And the shiftlessness of not having money for a surgery that seems dramatic. Or maybe, as the beau said, lots of tumors, though tonight it just feels like the old familiar one.

Down the street there's a twelve-year-old boy named Owen, who has ADHD; his mother tells everyone, Roberta thinks, like she's spreading an alibi. Owen comes around sometimes when Roberta's burning weeds or mowing and tries to help. He's more work than help, picks up a stick or a mower and tosses it down again, talking nonstop about a violent video game his parents won't buy for him. He's already played the entire game at a friend's house, and he tells Roberta about all the traps and weapons.

Last month Owen threw a stick and it caught in the spokes of Frank Bierlander's bicycle. Frank, age 78, went over the handlebars and cracked his collarbone. Owen's mother claims Owen had no idea what he was doing, and though at first she was frightened and offered to help pay the doctor bills, now she claims it's Frank's own fault for riding where children play, even though all Frank had done was ride past their low brick ranch as he had done most days for five years. Owen's parents both blame Frank for riding a bike at all if he can't take falling off. Plenty in town agree with them and have been irritated anyway with Frank for schoonering around on the bicycle like some eccentric who can do as he pleases. And at his age. It helped that they could joke about dementia, but it was irritating, catching him sliding by like that, out of the corner of your eye, out the front picture window. It wasn't what you expected when you were carrying a Pepsi through the living room. So now there are at least twenty or thirty people relieved that they will not be surprised by Frank on his bike.

Was it Owen's fault? He throws things all the time like a snake throwing skin, and he gets occupational therapy for it along with the medication. He's homeschooled sometimes because he throws pencils and rulers or sends them shooting off his desk. He says, sullenly, that he doesn't remember throwing any stick.

Was it her sister's fault that she brings her boyfriend around when Roberta's got nothing but a tumor to keep her company?

Thursday, February 23, 2006

trotting out stereotypes

Listen to physicist and novelist C.P. Snow's description of scientists v. artists in 1959:

They have a curious distorted image of each other. Their attitudes are so different that, even on the level of emotion, they can't find much common ground. Non-scientists tend to think of scientists as brash and boastful. They hear Mr. T.S. Eliot, who just for these illustrations we can take as an archetypal figure, saying about his attempts to revive verse-drama that we can hope for very little, but that he would feel content if he and his co-workers could prepare the ground for a new Kyd or a new Greene. That is the tone, restricted and constrained, with which literary intellectuals are at home; it is the subdued voice of their culture. Then they hear a much louder voice, that of another archetypal figure, Rutherford, trumpeting, 'This is the heroic age of science! This is the Elizabethan age!' Many of us heard that, and a good many other statements beside which that was mild; and we weren't left in any doubt whom Rutherford was casting for the role of Shakespeare. What is hard for the literary intellectuals to understand, imaginatively or intellectually, is that he was absolutely right.

Now compare all that with the diligent blandness of corporate and legitimate academic science today, versus the tiny, therapy-bolstered heroism of writer-teachers out to transform society through creative self-affirmation. In literature classes now, Eliot is the high-modernist priest from a lost heroic age of Difficult Literature, with the glamorous literary life involving steamer trunks and half-insane egotists who could actually read what he wrote; in current freshman chemistry texts, Rutherford is hardly a man at all. If the student bothers to imagine him, he's an Edwardian moustache and some gold foil. Otherwise, he's the clever, powerful experiment that suggested atoms are heavy nuclei surrounded by light charged particles. The man himself is lost by Chapter 2. If the two cultures have not exactly changed positions since 1959, they've come near enough to switching that I don't think it's any particular stance or self-conception keeping them apart.

My suspicion is that there's something deeply fallacious in this talk of two cultures, or "scientific minds" and "artistic souls", and that although there are real and distinct differences between thinking like an artist and thinking like a scientist, they are not the sort of thing that leave people staring at each other across a divide. I suspect those differences are more like north-north magnets, where if you try to drive them together head-on they resist and slip past each other. My guess is that most of the other differences are superficial, artifacts of how we get paid and short-lived excitements.

I've gotten off the track a little; I'd wanted originally to talk about how people in ordinary life pick up scraps of science's operating assumptions, and what that does to how they regard themselves and the world, how they deal with themselves and other people. I'll return to that in the next post.

I don't know yet whether this exploration of how artists and scientists can talk to each other will be useful for anything, but I figure I'll let it run here a while, and see. If you've read a good article or book on the subject, please recommend it.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

who's read mary midgley ?

I came across her books on Amazon, and for once can say well done interest-matching algorithm. One of her titles is
The Myths We Live By
; it begins like this:

We are accustomed to think of myths as the opposite of science. But in fact they are a central part of it: the part that decides its significance in our lives. So we very much need to understand them.

Myths are not lies. Nor are they detached stories. They are imaginative patterns, networks of powerful symbols that suggest particular ways of interpreting the world. They shape its meaning. For instance, machine imagery, which began to pervade our thought in the seventeenth century, is still potent today. We still often tend to see ourselves, and the living things around us, as pieces of clockwork: items of a kind that we could ourselves make, and might decide to remake if it suits us better. Hence the confident language of 'genetic engineering' and 'the building blocks of life'.

Again, the reductive, atomistic picture of explanation, which suggests that the right way to understand complex wholes is always to break them down into their smallest parts, leads us to think that the truth is always revealed at the end of that other seventeenth-century invention, the microscope. When microscopes dominate our imagination, we feel that the large wholes we deal with in everyday experience are mere appearances. Only the particles revealed at the bottom of the microscope are real. Thus, to an extent unknown in earlier times, our dominant technology shapes our symbolism and thereby our metaphysics, our view about what is real. The heathen in his blindness bows down to wood and stone -- steel and glass, plastic and rubber and silicon -- of his own devising and sees them as the final truth.

Of course this mechanistic imagery does not rule alone. Older myths survive and are still potent, but they are often given a reductive and technological form. Thus, for instance, we are still using the familiar social-contract image of citizens as essentially separate and autonomous individuals, but we are less likely now to defend it on humanistic or religious grounds than by appealing to a neo-Darwinist vision of universal competition....

Which is the kind of thing I'm interested in, in happily lucid prose. From what I've read about her so far, I gather she, like many others, thinks Dawkins is an idiot, this time because he ignores the role and value of other myths in viewing the world even when science gives nice resolution. It's worth mentioning that she's not religious, herself, and her object apparently isn't to persuade the reader of the glories of God.

I haven't read enough Dawkins to have an opinion on whether or not he's a bright idiot, and I'm not really interested in joining a team, but I can understand having a sense that you're listening to a 14-year-old cousin who's in possession of many facts and won't be leaving for two days. I wonder, though, if he doesn't get a bum rap. The problem with looking at the world through the lens of, say, The Selfish Gene (which I enjoyed very much), is that it doesn't seem to have a hell of a lot of use in everyday human life, except in giving some support for playing Tit for Tat. You don't go out to lunch with genes; you go out with people. Dawkins recognizes this, and partly anticipated Midgley twenty years ago. This is from the beginning of The Blind Watchmaker, where he's talking about the problem of understanding things in terms of tiniest, lowest-level interactions:

The behaviour of a computer can be explained in terms of interactions between semiconductor electronic gates, and the behaviour of these, in turn, is explained by physicists at yet lower levels. But, for most purposes, you would in practice be wasting your time if you tried to understand the behaviour of the whole computer at either of those levels. There are too many electronic gates and too many interconnections between them. A satisfying explanation has to be in terms of a manageably small number of interactions. This is why, if we want to understand the workings of computers, we prefer a preliminary explanation in terms of about half a dozen major subcomponents -- memory, processing mill, backing store, control unit, input-output handler, etc. Having grasped the interactions between the half-dozen major components, we then may wish to ask questions about the internal organization of these major components. Only specialist engineers are likely to go down to the level of AND gates and NOR gates, and only physicists will go down further, to the level of how electrons behave in a semiconducting medium.

For those that like '-ism' sorts of names, the aptest name for my approach to understanding how things work is probably 'hierarchical reductionism'. If you read trendy intellectual magazines, you may have noticed that 'reductionism' is one of those things, like sin, that is only mentioned by people who are against it. to call oneself a reductionist will sound, in some circles, a bit like admitting to eating babies. But, just as nobody actually eats babies, so nobody is really a reductionist in any sense worth being against. The nonexistent reductionist -- the sort that everybody is against, but who exists only in their imaginations -- tries to explain complicated things directly in terms of the smallest parts, even, in some extreme versions of the myth, as the sum of the parts! The hierarchical reductionist, on the other hand, explains a complex entity at any particular level in the hierarchy of organization, in terms of entities only one level down the hierarchy; entities which, themselves, are likely to be complex enough to need further reducing to their own component parts; and so on. It goes without saying -- though the mythical, baby-eating reductionist is reputed to deny this -- that the kinds of explantions which are suitable at high levels in the hierarchy are quite different from the kinds of explanations which are suitable at lower levels....Reductionism, in this sense, is just another name for an honest desire to understand how things work.

All of which leads me to wonder: Where are the Americans in this discussion? No, seriously, I say "partly anticipated" because Midgley is talking about reductionism's leading us to view the higher-level stuff -- personhood, for instance -- as illusion, not about our using it in some attempt to understand people in terms of quantum biochemical behavior. But I wonder if she's setting up a straw man. Yes, it is true that some bioscientists and roboticists will call personhood, or selfhood, an emergent property of certain biochemical organization and interactions. But I don't know that "emergent" and "illusory" are necessarily the same thing. If you are willing to assign selfhood a level of mythic reality, whatever it may spring from, then you are going out to lunch with Teresa, not the illusion of Teresa. Even though you may be aware, if you are inclined to think about these things as you pick the olives out of your salad, that at some level of pre-organization there is no Teresa with lipstick on her teeth, only quantum biochemistry fizzing around in some humanly unimaginable way.

(And we're back again to Asimov, to his story about Stephen Byerly, the inflammatory presidential candidate who might be a robot; he won't tell. Does it matter, as I ask here, that your dead brother was a robot, if you knew him as brother? Is it likely that Bobbie regards herself, tumor and cold paint-peeling house and all, as illusion? Again, I am not sure that illusion is the real problem. It seems more likely to me that the loss of specialness, as Rodney Brooks points out, is a bigger problem, and of course that comes from other myths. It's the problem of seeing those multiple levels of reality simultaneously, and attempting to reconcile their controlling myths in some way we can live with. Maybe I ought to read Midgley's book, though, eh?)

two cultures, nodding and smiling

tideliar writes:

I think it would terribly helpful to have scientists interested more in the philosophy of science. I thnk nowadays we lack a broader understand of life, or a view of the bigger picture if you like. Public perception of science and scientists is at an all time low. The "public" are generally distrustful of science, yet seem to lap up what is spoon fed to them by the media. I think if we engaged with our work and what it does, and what it means on amore emotional level, things could change. However, most scientists I know pride themselves on being rational and thus cold and logical (even when it's patently not true). I think this may be a difficult bridge to cross...

I talked recently with a friend at Michigan's School of Information (OK, the silliness of the name is wearing off after a year), where they regularly hold informal, interdisciplinary conferences with usability people, library science people, policy people, and some others. I was curious about how they understand each other well enough to have meaningful conversation on the chosen topics, and asked if the topics are recognized by all of them as problems or Major Important Things to Grapple With. No, he said, not really. And yet, according to him, the conferences are lively, useful, and well-attended. Not a source of unmanageable frustration about those _____ people who just don't get it. It occurred to him that he might be seeing the fruit of several years' worth of teaching these groups to talk to each other.

I wonder how much of that might be necessary in getting artists and scientists to talk to each other usefully & interestingly. Maybe it'll be largely a matter of finding the right seed people: well-read & serious scientists already thoughtful about the philosophy of science, serious/deep artists with unusually flexible views of creativity, patience with logical trains of thought, and quick grip on abstractions, and conversations that develop some language and conceptual girders for more conversations among other artists & scientists.

Again, only limited undergrad exposure, but I'd guessed the "just the science, ma'am," culture came mostly from two facts: One, you have to make things work, which means being extremely careful about what you don't know and what you believe from other people; two, it takes a lot of money to do science, and you have to compete for it, so there's tremendous pressure to look reliably smart. Which means not gassing around sounding stupid/wifty/whimsical more often than you must. But I expect people in the business have better ideas about why scientists sound like scientists, and why "sound like scientists" is an irritating & misleading thing to say. (There are some conversations on this over at LabLit, which is mainly about representations of science and scientists in fiction. Mostly sci fi, but literary when they can get it.)

There's not a hell of a lot of money in art, and I can do without watching it dawn on more scientists and other professionals how often literary writers work for free, and how small the money usually is when we do get paid. But there's also little penalty for talking absolute bullshit most of the time, thinking out loud and getting most of it wrong. You even can wander around being an unbearable flake, I mean spouting real idiocy, but no one will stop not paying you for it. If you can pan for gold in all that crap and write something striking or beautiful ten years later, that's really all that counts.

Might help for participants from both sides to understand, some, why they talk the way they do, how the others talk & why. Might help the conversation along. I wonder if it's possible or even all that important.

I hadn't heard that, btw, about public perceptions of scientists. Who says?

Oh. On the celebrity nightstand now: The Blind Watchmaker. I've had three Ted Chiang recommendations, so I'll read him & welcome story or collection recommendations. And I guess it's time to read C. P. Snow.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

on grooviness

Here's one from cam:

I've been thinking lots this week about connections between literature, philosophy and science, after hearing Neal DeGrasse Tyson comment in a lecture that Philosophy in Science had a useful purpose through the 19th century, but was irrelevant now. He later discussed how physicists like Brian Greene and his string theory peers have ventured too far from science in that they can't test empirically their theories. The string theorists are philosophers, not scientists, from Tyson's perspective.

I remember seeing a carton posted on the Biology dept bulletin board when I was in college. The cartoon depicted a physician telling a man he had an incurable illness and only a few weeks to live. In the last frame he say's "So, what do you think of E.M. Forster"? Someone had penned on the cartoon: "Biology - the real pre-med".

While I laughed at the cartoon, I'm sure I chuckled for different reasons than the biologist who posted it. Yes, the context was ridiculous, but who wouldn't want their physician to be well-rounded, to be informed by something other than just cells under the microscope and results of lab tests? (I'm not arguing whether reading Forster would provide that, so substitute your favorite writers or philosophers.)

I recently discovered Raymond Carver's poem 'What the Doctor Said' (published in "New Path to the Waterfall", 1990) and recalled that cartoon I saw over 25 years ago. The persona in Carver's poem is equally uncomfortable with the doctor asking if he was a religious man as he was with the scientific facts of his cancer. Neither suggestion is useful when receiving the diagnosis.

When I looked at the slides Tyson displayed in his lecture - photos of the Crab Nebula, of the Andromeda Galaxy, and other shots from the Hubble -- I couldn't help but think that they were artistic and, somehow, poetic. They seemed beyond awe-inspiring. I thought they embodied a truth beyond what they tell us about stars and black holes -- the level of 'truth' that we don't know fully but that helps us to understand our world and our relationship to it.

Scientific theories do need to be able to stand up to the rigors of testing, must be supported by facts. Philosophy must not disregard data that it doesn't like because it is inconvenient to one's argument. But, is quantifiable data the only way to understand the world?

If science is the quest to know our universe, isn't it attempting to do, in another manner, what philosophers and writers have been doing since humans first shared their thoughts with others? It is another way to try to find meaning in our existence, both individually, and in a broader, universal, sense. Therefore, shouldn't the two disciplines draw upon each other more, rather than less?

Friday, February 10, 2006

art and science: what they are, what they aren't

I've been thinking about how to arrange some talks between artists -- literary fiction writers, mostly -- and scientists, how they might be structured so we don't just talk past each other.

James Tata sent me a link he thought I might be interested in; it's an interview with physicist Lisa Randall, in which she talks about working with novelist Cormac McCarthy. It was essentially an interested McCarthy editing her manuscript -- she'd never read his books before he involved himself -- and I think the interview may illuminate a gap between the cultures of science and art.

Randall herself is a mystery reader, and it's a popular genre, but I hear a lot of scientists light up about mysteries when I ask them about hobbies or what they like to read for fun. When you're a writer, people who aren't writers often tell you their story ideas, and when I think back on it, scientists have generally offered puzzle-stories like mysteries. Many of them have also told me they like doing science because they like puzzles. And I'm beginning to wonder if there's a commonly-held, fundamental misperception, on the science side, of what literary writers do, what we perceive story to be. I guess it wouldn't be surprising. I'd expect most of us don't know what they do, either, or what they perceive science and their work to be.

Maybe the first thing to do in any sort of conference or conversation would be for the scientists and writers to talk about what their work is and is not. I know the answers would be quite varied on the fiction side. I don't know what might come out on the science side. And that alone seems worth finding out.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

hijack this thread

Digory wrote:

A couple of thoughts, which I am not sure where to put, so here they go -

Yeah, this is why I'm not a terrific fan of blog structure. Please feel free to hijack threads if you've got some sci/art-related topic you'd like to write on, and I'll repost your comment as a new thread starter.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006


As I'm wandering around on Edge and thinking about the sagging old maid with the tumor, I'm beginning to think I ought to learn something about quantum computation. (Have a look at for definitions and info on quantum computing.) What interests me is that it can be used in simulating quantum-mechanical systems. Maybe that means there will be less uncertainty about how we work. Or maybe it won't be relevant for anything as big as a person.

The University of Utah runs a yearly symposium on science and literature that may interest readers here. They describe their project so:

The foundational idea behind the symposium is that there is an important reciprocal influence between the sciences, the arts, and the humanities, though the ways in which current ideas are expressed and manifested, especially in our age of specialization, may be so different that the connections between them—as well as the ability to trace precedence—may not always be clear. Historically, for example, it is almost impossible for anyone who has even a basic understanding of Einstein to read much of Virginia Woolf's work without considering the impact of his ideas on her thinking, while chaos theory may have been predicted in the works of various 19th century writer.

I'm thinking it's time for the old maid to get a name. Let's call her...Roberta Rae. But I think everyone calls her Bobbie.

Monday, February 06, 2006

no manual

Last night, on Chicago's WGN news, there was an item about three murders in a car shootout. They showed a car off in a strip of waste by an empty lot in a nighttime city-highway no-man's-land, with the windshield shot through. The car & the scene, and the bright camera lights, reminded me of the way New York felt to me in my childhood in the mid/late 70s, how dangerous and askew things felt as we drove through neighborhoods to my grandparents' houses.

It occurred to me that those New York streets may not have been as dangerous as I remember. Every so often we're treated to studies of crime, accident, disease, and malaise that say no, things were not that bad; or, they were bad, but not in the way that we recall. The studies often sound reasonable; are they right? Me, I end up feeling amnesiac. How can I remember exactly what I saw and felt and why? How do I know the meaning of what I saw? What was my past, besides eating and laundry?


Imagine you're that sagging old maid with a tumor in the imaginary William Gass story from a few posts ago. And assume that you view yourself as a biological machine; you believe there's some physical reason why you have this tumor. You don't believe it's because you threw a can at a cat or wished your sister was ugly; you just have it, and you just can't afford to get it taken care of. When it comes down to it, nobody can explain how you got this tumor, or what you can do to keep from getting another one.

Now say your sister comes to visit with her beau, a pharmacist who studied biochemistry in college long ago. As she keeps telling you. Over a dinner of salads and jello he tells you that you likely got the tumor because you had a variety of mineral deficiencies, and that if you don't start taking megadoses you're going to sprout tumors like a lawn sprouts mushrooms. All over, and inside, too. In fact he wouldn't be surprised if you had some pretty good internal ones going right now. That's not what the man in Rockford told you two years ago; he said your tumor was likely caused by a freak mutation and would be an inconvenience, mostly. Your sister volunteers that your Aunt May had had a great big tumor right on her neck, and that it came from the polluted well she had; her beau tells her she's wrong, and that Aunt May had a simple goiter. Now you try to picture Aunt May and can't remember whether it was a goiter or not, but instead of feeling your own neck you hold your hands in your lap and pointedly do not offer your sister more jello.

That night, when you go to bed, what do you do? Do you put the whole thing heavily out of your mind? Do you fret about what you are and will be? Make up some loony synthesis of all the tumor explanations and decide what you'll do next? Resign yourself to a moment-by-moment existence and self-definition, and profound uncertainty about who you were and will be? This isn't simple hypochondria on your part; you believe your mind and self are emergent properties of your physical body. A radically changed body, a brain tumor, a paralysis, any of these things might change who you are, or the background sense of self that Antonio Damasio describes.

If you have a car, and something alarming goes wrong with it a few times -- say it stalls unpredictably -- you try to get rid of it and find a more reliable car. Problem solved. But you're stuck with your body. What does an ordinary fictional character do, then, when she doesn't care for supernatural explanations of life, but faces perennial uncertainty and revisionism about what and who she is, why she senses reality the way she does?

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Got book and paper recommendations?

I need to compile a reading list (for me) on the social implications of looking at life mechanistically or, um, emergently. Books, articles, and papers that have to do with recent scientific views of cognition, self-conception, and social conception would be good. So would books on historical intersections of art and science, though please no fractal-art, ASCII art, or other game-y art. If there are a few you particularly like, or writers you like, please recommend. Thanks.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Are there really any accidents?

As much as art nerds like surprises in art, I don't think we're really all that friendly to accident. I think we're prisoners of form, when you look at how life really goes. An apparent accident is nice -- say the discovery that Darth Vader is in fact Luke's father, or, less fun, the modernist experiments with language and the "make your own adventure" of 90s hypertexts. The accidents that happen as you're making the art are nice, too, like, say, the sudden understanding that a milquetoast character is really a kind of blind prophet and the pivot of your story. But there has to be some emotional coherence to art, which means "why" attends every choice. Why does this character show up now? What does it mean that he's dressed like that, and who cares? "But it really happened that way" is a lousy defense, even in nonfiction, and I'd bet most editors are pretty quick to dismiss it. Not because editors are dismissive jerks, but because it's pretty rare for big, strong-emotion-generating machines to assemble themselves by accident in short realtimes; as long as it takes to read a novel, for instance.

If you manage to break out of the expected causal relationships (the antique-gun dealer has to leave the pistol on the mantel so the protagonist can ignore it and watch her husband leave with another woman in 60 pages, leaving the gun as a symbol of how the protag deals with the world generally and her reasons for it), you'll still have to make the work coherent somehow. With tone, or unusual connections between elements of your piece,or somehow -- it doesn't matter how. There are grammars to how fiction goes, too, from "Once upon a time" to the expectation that the quaint hypertext you're playing with will not turn out to be a spybot for NSA or a straight-ahead Burroughs cut-up or be written entirely in cuneiform. If you're not working with a well-established grammar, you'll have to come up with some internal structure of your own, or at best you'll have made a marshy curiosity, a one-off.

Combine those restraints with artists' limited imaginations, and I think it's very hard, maybe impossible, to make a fiction that's as strange and accident-ridden as life. It seems to me the mechanical-universe view is actually friendlier to accident. Not because of the idea that things are in fact accidental and chaotic, but because of the acceptance of our limited understanding and data collection. If we can't model a few hydrogen atoms' behavior in a closed space, how can we hope to explain the origins of a particular real cancer, let alone why Uncle Charlie met that floozy at church two months before he died and left her everything? For all purposes, much of life is accidental, then. Until, unless, we have a better explanation, and in the meantime you can believe what you like but there's no scientific basis for it. Unless you're Michael Behe.

Speaking of Behe (and must I? No, but as a Lehigh alum it tickles me to think what he's doing to the administration), here is a quiet but demurring review of his book by Alice Fulton, who's a biochemist here at Iowa and a recently-ordained Episcopal priest.

Would a more mechanical view of life force greater tolerance of apparent accident inside fictional worlds? I'm thinking again of cars and how, in stories, characters attach supernatural meanings to breakdowns. I wonder if a fictional world where characters are simply tolerant of accident would be too boring.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

the accidental patient

A couple of years ago I met a recently-ordained minister, a hospital chaplain here in Iowa City. We have a tertiary teaching hospital here, one of a few large hospitals in Iowa, so there are patients who come a hundred miles or more for treatment, and their families often come along. She said she'd been struck by the number of patients -- and their families -- who were dead certain they were sick because they'd done something wrong. Morally wrong, sin wrong, not pack-a-day wrong or unlucky-choice-of-parents wrong. Over the course of her first few months, if I recall her story, she'd learned to stop trying to explain medically why they were sick, and instead tried to persuade them in religious terms that they were blameless. Also that it was appropriate to shift their concern from self-incrimination and faultseeking to healing.

It's a common conception of illness, I think. More usual than not. It's punishment, or at the very least a sort of gracelessness, and I think many of us attach cosmic significance to our own major illnesses. It's a terrific time for pact-making: If I beat this, I'll ______. Forever. I'll reform, I'll do good deeds, I'll straighten up and fly right. And you hear people talk about recovery in religious terms with great seriousness: God spared me for a reason. There's no mention in there of, say, lucky biochemistry, or being sick at the right time in medical history. Or accident. The accidental mutation, the accidental cascade trigger.

I wonder what would change, socially and storywise, if we mainly conceived of illness as simple, even accidental, mechanical failure. I'm not sure it would necessarily make us kinder to either ourselves or other sick people. There would be, for instance, no readymade story for reform and aiding the sinner. I think of how we look at people who have lousy cars and houses; would we still avoid sick people, feeling that they've got some taint of loserdom or that they're irresponsible managers? I could see how, say, in a William-Gass sort of cold midwestern house, with a sagging braless old maid and the uncomfortable relative who's staying a while, a long illness might lose a sense that somehow, in the silent-treatment vastness of the small town and surrounding, the sick woman might have done something wrong. Something important, maybe, though no one except maybe some infuriatingly overreaching minister would even try to tell her what, or when, or the scale of it. Instead it might carry the same feel, resignation, shame, as the rotting porch foundation she can't afford to have fixed this year, again. I imagine that could be. Only with the porch foundation, someone might inflict or bestow charity on her, fix the thing while she was away. With a tumor, well, not so likely.

so is it science fiction?

I make irritated noises at the idea, partly because of how sci-fi is relegated to genre ghetto, partly because the question's inevitable. The propaganda publishing-world answer is "no". A more thoughtful answer is "it depends on how you define science fiction."

I mean if you think of what science fiction usually means, it's wooden plotting and character, enormous breasts, story staring bug-eyed at some technical challenge (no water, disease, an expensive robot gone bad, space armada with unbeatable weapons) and driven by the grammars of other genres: action-adventure, mystery, fairy tale, gothic romance. This is obviously not what I'm after in talking about our own machineness. While I'd bet there are many novels yet to be written staring at the idea of our being machines...well, I liken it to the difference between tourists and residents.

You go to a strange city, you're struck by the landmarks, by what people wear and how they talk, by the width of the streets, whatever's strange to you. Live there for a while, or a lifetime, and you become blind to certain things (tall buildings, say) or you understand them with a depth and richness unknown to tourists (what it means, for instance, that people talk the way they do). You're A.J. Liebling, not Paul Theroux. And over the span of your life in a place, the features rise and sink and take on different meanings. The tall building is a landmark, is invisible, is an historical anchor, is a political controversy, is a proxy for powerful men you may or may not know or have dealings with. The way a woman talks is a novelty, a struggle to understand, a master to your clumsiness with the local language, a sign of a certain status, a souvenir of a time and place with certain meanings of its own, which may or may not be meaningful to you personally.

So with ideas like machineness. I don't think a novel staring at life's mechanical nature is going to be very much more interesting than a tourist's travelogue. But if artists can draw out the meanings and life of how we already understand ourselves, now, to be machine to some extent -- or if they can imagine a world that doesn't quite exist yet, but is conceivable in, say, the next fifteen years, or 50 -- and get to those depths and richnesses that you get when you really live with something and take it for granted, I think we'll have something very interesting.

And I guess that's really the question: Is it SF if the premise is "just suppose," and you're supposing something to do with science?

(There's a discussion on a related topic at LabLit, mostly to do with how "lab lit" -- fictions about scientists and doing science -- might be distinct from science fiction. They also answer my question by contrasting sci fi with "speculative fiction", at which point I wonder how much the label matters.)