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.