MONDAY, JANUARY 12, 2015
So our next meeting is going to be on the stirrings of the Scientific Revolution in the late 16th and 17th centuries. We are going to focus on what this rise of science meant for our world and our way in it.
Science is alternatively portrayed as a threat, as an impersonal technical achievement, as the great engine of civilization, as our only possible salvation, etc., etc.
Which is it?
(No doubt, a lot depends upon which Arnold Schwarzenegger movie you happen to be watching at the time.)
We admire scientists who are friends.
We sometimes fear scientists we don’t know.
The way science is taught in the classroom can seem dull and repetitive, like following a recipe in a cookbook.
Yet sometimes even a brief exposure to an idea derived from science can lead us to stop everything and wonder about the nature of our very existence.
Is science just a method, a technique for acquiring practical knowledge? Or does it mean anything in itself?
What are the values it promotes?
What does science fail to capture about your lived experience?
What does science get wrong, despite all the evidence arrayed in its favor?
I am putting together a few readings to get us going for discussion. (Please feel fee to send your own suggestions in by email. Or bring them to the discussion.) I plan to keep adding to this as the day of our meeting approaches, so please keep checking back for more.
1. Excerpts from Scientific Method by Barry Gower (click on title for the chapters on Galileo and Bacon)
2. A sonnet by Edgar Allan Poe:
Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art!
Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.
Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart,
Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?
How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise,
Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering
To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,
Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?
Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car,
And driven the Hamadryad from the wood
To seek a shelter in some happier star?
Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,
The Elfin from the green grass, and from me
The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?
3. Another poem questioning the value of science, this one by Robinson Jeffers:
Man, introverted man, having crossed
In passage and but a little with the nature of things this latter
Has begot giants; but being taken up
Like a maniac with self-love and inward conflicts cannot manage
Being used to deal with edgeless dreams,
Now he’s bred knives on nature turns them also inward: they
have thirsty points though.
His mind forebodes his own destruction;
Actaeon who saw the goddess naked among leaves and his hounds
A little knowledge, a pebble from the shingle,
A drop from the oceans: who would have dreamed this infinitely
little too much?
4. Excerpts from The Scientific Revolution: A Brief History with Documents by Margaret C. Jacob. (I have included the introduction, which tells the story of the Scientific Revolution and puts Galileo and Bacon in context.)
5. Some brief excerpts from the The Cambridge Companion to Bacon, edited by Markku Peltonen
6. Excerpt from Francis Bacon From Magic to Science by Paolo Rossi
7. Excerpt form Time Reborn by Lee Smolin (read this for its interesting take on Galileo and Newton’s — and science’s — possible limitations)
8. Excerpt from Sympathetic Vibrations by K. C. Cole, on the “Sentimental Fruits of Science”
9. Excerpt from The Silence of Animals by John Gray (questioning the role of science in contributing to “progress”)
The Lee Smolin piece brought to mind a Theodor Adorno essay on the relationship of music to painting (http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/philosophy/news/calendar/lydia_goer_postgraduate/jstor_terms_and_conditions.pdf ).
Adorno points out that painting as an art form is bound in time, as compared with music, which is what he calls a “temporal art.” (I may be bastardizing it, but this is off the cuff.)
Music unfolds over time, whereas a painting is a sort of instantaneous, frozen compression of the choices made over time by an artist. Although we the viewer may require some time to “take it in,” a painting represents a sort of idealized banishment of time, (similar to the way physics may banish time by representing events taking place over time, in instantaneous fashion via mathematical models).
This is an extremely rough, and hack-y rendering of Adorno’s ideas. In fact he makes a number of interesting points, among them, that the more “painterly” a piece of music is, the less important is the temporal aspect of the music.
Consider whether rhythm is more important to Debussy’s “impressionism,” or the music of say, Beethoven. Clearly, the “coloristic” effects Debussy evokes are less dependent on the temporal. (Adorno doesn’t provide helpful examples such as this — I’m inserting a “for instance” because his writing is so terse.)
I’m not attempting to conflate art with science, to say “the two (art and science) are essentially one!” or anything like that. I just found the parallel striking. Even if it’s essentially meaningless.
Maybe it’s not meaningless. It’s just possible that the nature of time — which remains constant across these different realms — leads to the strange echoes I think I detect.
It also made me think of software engineering… we write software, but the lines of code are not the same as the program, which unfolds over time. Whereas the blueprint of a building or a bridge is somewhat a representation of the object, lines of code are more tangential to the final aim… The bridge changes over time, but once executed, it’s more like that piece of art hanging on the wall — an instantaneous compression of the processes used to create it. Whereas computer programs unfold over time. Not sure what Adorno would think of any of that, or if he’d just dismiss it as stupid.
Zac. Great connections! I was thinking about our experience of a painting, though, and how, as you acknowledge, it is always in time. We enter into the perhaps two-dimensional “timeless” painting and then… we begin to travel across the paint, travel with our changing neuro-biological experience (e.g. we may get hungrier while gazing at a still life with fruit), and always in time.
So you have the artist, or software engineer, compressing time, freezing it, winding it up, choose your metaphor, in his or her work. But then there is the decompression again, the melting, the re-unwinding of time, if you will, as the perceiver, or user, engages with the work.
Perhaps all we can do, when we create something, art, code, anything, in time, is to reset the direction of the time-experience for someone else? That is the modest but significant sharing that goes on between us. Not the infinite but the redirecting of the finite experience in time.
Proust defines art along these lines, by the way: the finding of “lost time,” a past memory, which is, due to the work of the writer or musician or painter, revitalized, redirected by a present event. (See a previous reading group I led, http://www.readingproustinberkeley.com for posts on this!). Thanks for writing in. Looking forward to more.