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.