We earlier marveled at the proliferation, in our generation, of musical prodigies (performers, not composers, though). In athletics as well, performance is just plain better than it ever was.
Ever since computers started whupping grandmasters, it has pretty much ruined the romance of the game -- much as similar technical developments scotched the potential vaudeville careers of mnemonic or calculating savants. It’s a mug’s game, two alpha males knocking themselves out each to beat the other, when neither is as good as a machine.
Granted, the computers’ prowess is itself a human achievement. These things didn't just drift in from Andromeda. We built them, we programmed them, we told them what to do. We invented the heuristics that allowed performance to evolve to the next step. Only, at some point, emergent factors take over, and our invention kind of gets away from us. “The equations were wiser than I was,” as Maxwell said of his own. And these Big Blues and what have you start to stick in everybody’s craw.
So, a proposal: Duffers, of course, will keep just duffing along, for fun. But at the highest levels of play, we need a new mission. And this, not to beat each other up, but specifically to target the machines. This will be to a large extent a collaborative, rather than a purely competitive enterprise. The game will be purified of the boardside antics, knuckle-cracking and cigar-smoke-blowing and a radio receiver in the ear. More like the Apollo program, of putting a man on the moon. Which man, did not matter. Instead, collectively, passionately-yet-dispassionately, study the cybernetic style of play, probe it, discover its shallow spots. Then strike a blow for us bipeds, for the honor of -- well, the warrior, really. Colossus delendus est !
And just how (you scoff) is such a development to come about?
Not in any way that we can imagine -- but then special relativity, quantum mechanics, and general relativity were unimaginable until they were born as fact.
Now -- it might be that chess is only somewhat less shallow than checkers (which fell to machines long ago), and that there is little room for improvement.In which case, the contest isn’t interesting.A hydraulic lift can heft more than any human weightlifter;a computer beats humans within the current understanding of the game.
But it might be, that chess, as many say of Go, is deep indeed.The way forward then would be to develop some entirely new strategy of play and lines of attack -- not necessarily stronger, in any meta-metric, than what we have now, but outside the ken of the computer.The computers could start to lose.Now, to keep the contest interesting, programmers would have to be forbidden from importing “the answers” into their programs:it would be us against the cybernetic heuristics.That is the only arena in which our Colossus may seem some sort of independent intelligence.And if it eventually beats us then, um, somebody be ready to pull the plug.
This Idea concerns music, and may not be adequately expressible in words. Nor in music either; rather, in a kind of meta-music, for which we lack a notation.
Initially, children like music – rhythms and tunes – the way they like milk. There is no idea about it; and if there were, it wouldn’t count for our purposes, being innate. And there, for many – probably most – the matter rests. True, one’s taste in music matures, as does one’s taste in food or drink. But it’s still just one tune, or taste, after another.
Only some few attain to the Idea of music as an autonomous realm, which can be appreciated even by the deaf Beethoven, or as read off a Bach score.
Graham Green, Stamboul Train (1932): “From the third-class carriage at the rear of the train came the sound of a fiddle. The tune was bare, witty, mathematical.” Compare experts’ impressionistic descriptions of particular chess-games. Indeed, the Idea in its full generality would probably apply to all sorts of apparently abstract structures: the Idea being that there is a kind of isomorphism with more intuitive human realms.
I’ll say no more on the subject, since it is not an Idea of which I have a firm grasp. (No chess move ever struck me as "witty".)
Logically, the term statutory rape is like common-law marriage, legally blind, or corporate person. (For the latter, cf. Wikipedia: “Legal personality (also artificial personality, juridical personality, and juristic personality) is the characteristic of a non-human entity regarded by law to have the status of a person.”) Someone using such terms is well aware that we are not dealing with rape, marriage, blindness, or persons in the usual sense; but for certain well-defined legal purposes, the broader entities referred to are analogous.
Thus, in order to maintain that President Clinton had committed perjury when he said “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” (a statement strictly true, in the dictionary sense of sexual relations, legally binding at the time), his detractors used the term sexual relations (dictionary definition: a synomym of sexualintercourse) loosely to refer to any sort of hanky-panky, such as attempting to smoke a cigar in what one imagines is a highly inefficient way. And now, frustrated at the comparative mildness of the penalties against acts of lewd aggression that are not actually rape, the activists have taken to simply calling such things, well, rape. This simplifies the media’s prosecutors’ task considerably: If you are rich and French and you put your hands where they don’t belong -- bingo, you’re a ‘rapist’.
So greatly are brains befuddled, when confronting the politics of sex, that I almost despair of getting the point across. So let us remove to an analogy. Tom shoots at John, missing him. Or, Tom beats John to a pulp. Or, Tom announces on national television that he intends to kill John. Then Tom is charged with murder, because, though his intended victim is still among the living, what he did was “just as bad”. And if you imply otherwise, you are insulting the murder-victims community.
Thus, to answer in the modern spirit, the Mad Hatter’s classic unanswered question, “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?”: in the view of the raven community, it’s near enough as makes no difference.
Anyhow, now that the skirt-chaser has gone “scot-free” (as one feminist put it -- minus, of course, his privacy, his dignity, his previously secure shot at the French Presidency, several weeks of his life, and many thousands of dollars), under the American system, his legal troubles are far from over. Under the American system, it’s every shark for his or her self, in the blood-roiled tank. Lack of criminal liability will not help him here. For, standards of evidence are different in criminal and in civil trials. In a criminal trial, guilt must be proved “beyond reasonable doubt”. In a civil trial, in the Bronx (where the events did not happen but where, naturally, the lawsuitress would like the the game to be played, on home turf), you need only prove that the defendant is rich, white, male, and unpopular.
~ ~ ~
[Update 2 Oct 2011] And now, a move to legally change the definition:
You know how you feel when your favorite TV or fiction series draws to a close -- you’re reduced to reading re-hashed interviews with the director and the make-up man, or buying Jack Bauer bobble-head dolls. In the case of Harry Potter, fans took matters into their own hands, and began writing and posting sequels and prequels and paralequels. In the case of l’affaire DSK -- pour faire durer le feuilleton de l'été, as one French reader put it -- new nymphettes crawl out of the woodwork with sordid or titillating tales dredged up from years past, and the media goes for it. If the narrative runs out, go for the meta-narrative.
The first to surface was Ms. Tristane Banon -- a fetching lass for whom one might well lose a world, and be content to lose it. She has come forward with a tale some eight years old, of unwanted attentions from the old goat. What somewhat tarnishes this stirring tale is that she has -- literally -- already dined out on it: there is a video on the Net of the tragic victim at a dinner party, laughing and snarkily retailing the spicy details of their rendezvous, to general merriment.
You even get meta-meta-narratives: In this case, possibly distraught at having so little to work with, her lawyer, mindful that the postmistress of Celebrity never rings twice, is attempting to drag a second woman into it, one with no relation to the case, and a self-describedly consensual past with the gallant economist, to make her spill the spicy stuff:
Or again, yet another aethiope temptress, who came forward to demand her own fifteen minutes in the public press. Interesting -- Diallo’s lawyer would love to talk to her, maybe pick up some more dirt. But then things get really meta: the mayor of Sarcelles supposedly asks the temptress’s father to tell his daughter to STFU; at which point the ineffable defense of Ms. Diallo (Who is bankrolling all this, btw? She’s always referred to as impoverished, but she certainly has quite a legal platoon at her disposal, including an attorney in France) jumps into the act, attempting to place said mayor in legal hazard, for… subornation of let-it-rest-already, or obstruction of lawsuit or something. (Note to American readers: Absurd; Diallo’s lawyers don’t control French law.
Note to French readers: Absurd; said father had not been subpoenaed, no-one is obliged to cooperate with some grandstanding defense attorney trying to snatch some more headlines for himself.)
Anyhow, the teetering caravan totters on, and some tart commentary, high in Gallic tannin, is still to be had.
[A selection of readers’ comments, chosen as much for savorsome colloquial expression as anything else. Bottom line: the French aren’t buying it.]
* Voilà quelqu'un qui a dû se voir proposer de la monnaie sonnante et trébuchante pour faire durer le feuilleton de l'été. Il devrait nous dire ce que l'aventure a rapporté. Quant à la rupture, cela arrive dans tous les couples aussi et cela se passe plus ou moins mal, il est sûr que cela ne rapporte pas de pension alimentaire, quand l'aventure est finie, elle est bien finier. Au lieu de faire parler des citoyens lambdas, pourquoi ceux de certains cercles ne racontent pas ce qu'ils savent et dont il ont dû se régaler au lieu de demander à des sous-fifres
* il est facile 22 ans après de sortir une nouvelle affaire. Il y aurait une femme du même age que DSK qui aurait eu une aventure lors d'un slow lorsque le duo était en 6ème.Journaliste jetez-vous sur cette nouvelle affaire.
* Mais c'est quoi ce montage ? Ce qu'a dit la jeune Femme de DSK ne peut expliquer le déballage du père dont il est permis de se poser des questions sur la crédibilité. Laissons la justice faire son travail, elle qui a tant à faire sur de véritables drames qu'elle n'a même pas le temps de traiter comme il conviendrait. Et attention aux effets Boomerangs, les frustrés en tous genres
* Un peu marre des histoire de petites vertuesToutes ces personnes intéressées par l'argent, que ce soit Melle Banon ou maintenant cette M Victorine... Elles sont grandes et vaccinées, savent ce qu'elle font et si aucun faits incriminés n'a été dénoncé en l'époque c'était sûrement parce que chacun y trouvait son compte ou ne jugeait pas utile de pousser plus loin... Chacun a son anecdote privée et l'on ne l'étale pas sur la voie publique. En tout état de cause sans preuves matérielles toutes ces jeunes intéressées resterons sans leur rançon... l’argent. Voilà le vrai leitmotiv de ces voraces... Après la vidéo de melle banon très parlante puisqu'elle éclate de rire en racontant sa tentative de viol par DSK aurons nous une nouvelle "lovestory" avec la M. Victorine ??? Vraiment loi de l'Histoire à l'eau de rose ces femmes.
* Il veulent sa peau, je pense qu'il y a machination, tout les jours il y aura une victime!!!
* Encore une personne qui cherche de l 'argent . 13 années plus tard elle se réveille, et le père aussi. mais cela devient vraiment grotesque, vraiment à se bidonner.
* Alors là c'est vraiment exceptionnel. C'est hallucinant de voir à quel point on s'acharne sur DSK pour a tout prix le faire tomber. Une histoire qui remonte à 13 ans (record battu Tristane), aucun scandale sexuel à la clé, un vieux contentieux avec ce Monsieur pour une histoire de maison (quel rapport ??), qui comme par hasard est passé dans l'opposition (comme Banon qui est de droite). Franchement, c'est le cas de le dire, c'est gros comme une maison !! A la limite, c'est risible.
* si tous les amants et maîtresses éconduits depuis 13 ans faisaient le même bordel, bonjour le boulot ! n'importe quoi .. pas crédible, on rêve... bon la prochaine fois ça va remonter à ses 8 ans ou à sa voisine de classe à la maternelle !!! wouah ! wouah !
* C'est vraiment pas clair cette histoire. La fille juriste internationale et qui n'a même pas pu faire quelque chose pour loger son père convenablement ????? ça sent encore un coup monté pour du fric. A la place des journalistes je n'userai même pas une page pour raconter une histoire aussi débile. Que l'on foute la paix à DSK !!!
We leave this commentary till last:
On se repent souvent de parler, jamais de se taire.
In other words,
Wovon man nur schwatzen kann, darüber soll man halt ja schweigen.
and being right now, even as I write (last words?), smack dab in the sights of fearsome Hurricane Irene, which politicians and the media (doubtless wishing not to be caught with their pants down Katrina-fashion) have been treating like the Storm of the Century, or of the Millennium, or of the Phanerozoic Era (the citizens have just been urged to write their name and next of kin on a piece of paper and place it in their left shoe, so that when they find the bodies... Not making this up) ; my wife and I borrowed some movies from the library, focusing on disaster flicks, like “The Day the Earth Stood Still”. The package featured the Keanu Reeves remake; but to our delight, we found, as a Lucky Strike extra, the original 1951 B&W bundled therewith, and so we watched that first.
I sort of dreaded it, since from the title you’d think it would be a long panorama of things that fall down and go boom: the earth standing still being the heliocentric terrestrial perspective on that ancient day when the sun stood stock-still in the sky. But it turns out they didn’t mean that; the movie might more candidly have been titled “The Day People Quit Driving So Darned Much (if only for half an hour)”. Anyhow, pleasant surprise: It isn’t really a disaster flick, and only superficially science-fictional, but rather depicts, with some skill, the aims and anxiety of our postwar/cold-war nation, at a time when I was in diapers, and my bride-to-be lay sleeping in the womb. Such documents always fascinate me: “See what we missed!”
A nice touch for linguists: That theme of a linguist saving the day appears to some extent here, when the alien tells a laywoman what phrase to say to prevent the irate robot from reducing Earth to a cinder. “Klaatu barada nikto”, he says; and he only says it once.
Now, the linguistic chops of most Americans lie between those of the earthworm and the paramecium on their less-talkative days. The best we might hope for from your ordinary Joe would be, “Uh, Mr Robot? Mm… Kaku booboo noonoo…. Uh… Coocoo wawa boofoo… Hmm…. Parlay-voo espanyol? Oo sont les toilettes ?” But our heroine recites the passphrase letter-perfect, and the planet is spared.
~ ~ ~
UPDATE… [imagine these words appearing on your screen one stuttering character at a time, spit out by a clattering teletype]
AT AN UNDISCLOSED LOCATION NEAR WASHINGTON, D.C….. 7:21 P.M. …
Suzanne wanted to watch the sequel “before the power goes out”, so we booted up the 2008 version.
Hurricane update: It’s barely even raining, with not so much as a breeze! Sheesh! I want my money back!
~ ~ ~
Right away you know that this version is “more ambitious”, since it starts out, not with the basic story -- which the 1951 forerunner wasted no time at all getting to, and stuck with it throughout -- but with some sneak-preview prequel whatever set in the Himalayas in 1928, in which blah-de-blah happens; the which will either be simply forgotten, or, worse, the movie will strain to somehow work in its relevance. I’m thinking of “24”, which bit off more than it should even bother to chew, in the way of distracting loose-ended subplots.
Hurricane update: Okay okay. Here in Howard County, so far it’s pretty much of a bust. But you guys north of here? Yooo -- ahhh --- dooooooooooooomed !!!
~ ~ ~
[ditdit - di- dit-dit….] UPDATE… AT A (FOOLISHLY ALREADY DISCLOSED) LOCATION NEAR WASHINGTON DC … 8:21 P.M. …
Okay so, this time around, it’s not our nukes that are freaking the aliens, it’s our SUVs, carbon emissions, all that… Ironic note: The movie studio here is 20th-C.-Fox, owned by international dirtbag Rupert Murdoch, chief patron of the climate-change deniers.
Well, go figure. Fox was also behind “24”, which presented a very sympathetic, very plausible, very presidential picture of a first black Chief Executive of the US. Which may very well (so works the human mind) have helped Obama into the office he now holds.
(The Weltgeist smiles …)
Hurricane update: All quiet on the Snowden Parkway front.
The thought occurs to me… Perhaps this “Hurricane Irene” is actually just … a hoax, like the Apollo landings! Just something got up by the media to boost their ratings! Everything is explained !!
~ ~ ~
[dateline: Langley, Virginia… 9:21 p.m. …]
AHHH-TEN-TION…. AHHH-TEN-TION…. THERE HAS BEEN A LEAK … THERE HAS BEEN A LEAK.. UNAUTHORIZED DISCLOSURE FROM MOVIE AS FOLLOWS:
Stand-in for the President (for some reason, the President himself is missing in action during this entire film, apparently gotten out of the way just so they could have a female in charge): Which of our agencies gathered this intel?
Military guy: None. We got it off the Internet.
**ALERT** **ALERT** **FUNDING IN DANGER** REPEAT: **FUNDING IN DANGER**
~ ~ ~
OK, bottom line.
The Rotten-Tomatoes consensus of contemporary critics exalts the 1951 movie to the skies, and roundly pans the remake. In this, there would appear to be some critics’ bias. I very much doubt if contemporary audiences would render the same verdict, especially if they did not watch the two movies side-by-side.
True, the original movie was a (minor) milestone for its time; whereas the remake is just one in a barely-distinguishable plethora of thrillers. Moreover, the original was seamless, comprehensible to Ma & Pa Kettle, entertaining and more-or-less understandable to any 8-year-old child; whereas the latter was probably hard to follow for anyone who hadn’t seen the original and hence known what the plot was supposed to be. It’s not worth pointing out the dozen or so junctures at which the remake made no narrative sense: the original lasted an hour or so, and was probably shot in a couple of hours; the remake may have had 3,000 hours of footage in the can, and in the course of (locally-careful) editing, crucial logical transitions were lost. (Suzanne thought it one of the most disjointed movies she’d seen; but I suspect that her expectations had been raised by knowing, from the original, what it all was supposed to mean. The remake is truly no worse than dozens of other summer movies.)
But the later movie had beauties of its own -- principally cinematographic: shots of aching beauty (in a forest; along a highway; beside a bridge) which occupy no more than a couple of seconds of screentime, and hence would have been lost on an earlier generation, but which we can now freeze, or rewind, and savor.
Granted, there are cases where (say) the French make a decent movie; which American cinebusiness refuses to distribute, but instead remakes it in English, possibly better possibly worse. Go ahead, denounce that. But here there has been a lapse of over fifty years; a remake is no more reprehensible than a new production of Hamlet.
Just one tiny observation that tells it all:
I have elsewhere lauded the pains taken by contemporary movies to get even recondite details right. As: Old Norse (in Buffy, of all things), and Arabic -- right down to the appropriate dialect.
Likewise here. The original made excellent use of the professor’s blackboard: the alien, trying against odds to gain in interview with the professor, corrects his physics. The remake attempted to go them one better: read Wikipedia on how they recruited experts to write down genuine equations of General Relativity. From what I saw, this really is true.
Only… in the actual movie… once the PC-police had had a go at it, the professor was no longer a physicist, but had won a Nobel Prize for… “biological altruism” (a category unknown to the committee in Stockholm). So the equations were ludicrously far off.
Likewise… in the original movie, the professor played more than a dramatic -- a moral role. How the world’s squabbling political leaders could not come together for an audience, was carefully outlined, in a way true to the geopolitics of the time; in the remake, all this was skated over. In the original, the international scientific community was explicitly counterposed to that of the politicians who had just brought us the sequel to the Great War: hail this or denounce it, the position was coherent and clear. (Democracy/demagogy vs. technocracy/aristocracy.) In the remake, it is not at all clear why the alien goes to this particular professor (painstakingly clear in the original), nor how they even find his house. No allusion at all is made to the possible positive role of international science -- lame indeed, given that the central problem is put forth as ecological -- and the episode just vanishes into irrelevancy. (Oh, yes, and by the end -- that Himalayan business is never properly explained.) More than a narrative failing, this is a moral failing.
~ ~ ~
SUNDAY MORNING -- THE AFTERMATH.
There are clouds -- clouds everywhere, utterly obscuring the sun. Citizens are urged to shelter indoors.
A neighbor surveys the wreckage. “That-- that flowerpot,” he stammers. “It used to be upright; and now it’s… it’s…” He cannot finish the sentence; but silence is more eloquent than words.
The governor has announced that special medals will be issued to all citizens who braved, and survived, this storm.
[Update, mid-morning] My G*d, wh*t's th*t ??? That yellow thing, up in the sky??? The sun, mother, give me the sun !!! The sun has survived the storm !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
This may not have been the Storm of the Century, but it was certainly the Storm of the News Cycle.
~ ~ ~
Though this wasn’t quite clear in the narrative murk of the remake, Wikipedia (the All-Wise) confidently states:
The remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still features a grey goo nanoattack on human civilization.
In a quite recent development, an anarchist group with the ineffable title of “IndividualesTendiendo a loSalvaje “ has taken to sending package-bombs to Mexican scientists engaged in robotics or nanotechnology. An impassioned plea from a researcher appears in the current issue of Nature:
Home-made bombs are being sent to physicists in Mexico.
An extremist anarchist group known as Individuals Tending to Savagery (ITS) has claimed responsibility for the attack. The ITS expresses particular hostility towards nanotechnology and computer scientists. The group praises Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber.
This sounds like a High Concept proposal for a new disaster-movie; but it’s the world in which we live.
~ ~ ~
It turns out that the original movie may have played a role in the history of world summitry. As Lou Cannon tells it, in President Reagan (1991, p. 61), Reagan's aides were worried about "Reagan's preoccupation with ... 'the little green men', and ... struggled diligently to keep interplanetary references out of Reagan's speeches." But in his first meeting with Gorbachev, in 1985, popped out with an extemporized proposal, to the effect that, in the event of a alien attack, the U.S. would cooperate with the Soviet Union in repelling it. (Actually, there is no downside to promising such a thing; not making fun here.) Reagan's aide "was convinced that Reagan's unique proposal ... had been inspired by a 1951 science-fictgion film, The Day the Earth Stood Still. ... It was a film with a peace message, one that, in a Hollywood still quivering from Red-hunting congressional committees, would probably have been permitted only in science fiction." -- This is quite true. That film depicts people with varying skin-tints actually sitting down right next to one another.
Remarkable, how the addition of that little syllable changes things, sur le plan poétique ! A waltz-time dimeter becomes a thumping oompah-band of a trochaic tetrameter; and what began as a mystical vision, becomes a punchline or witticism.
okay, here I’m kidding a bit. But
the idea is: One can elaborate a
fantasy life, parallel to one’s daily routine, and quite as rich and
satisfying; and not even particularly autistic, as it can sometimes enjoyably
be shared. (Cf. C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy.) Perhaps this is no more
than a Lesson Learned (being not applicable to everybody); or (if indeed
universal) perhaps it is only a variant of Idea 4 (“Free invention of
structures”), the created structures here
being literary rather than mathematical. I am wont to spend dreamy afternoons on Planet Penguin, a
land of fantastical lore, turning over and over the immemorial Legends of the
Penguins: much as one may lead an
alternate existence in the World of Dickens – much as Mr. McCawber does.
it is just a fancy; or perhaps there is something more to it. Whose are those
eyes, behind the skies, glinting in amusement at our earthly shadow-play?!
Positively to enrol this bit of whimsy among the stern
centurions of Leading Ideas, would be taken amiss, as it is not something
generally accepted. To argue for
its validity would require an essay in itself, and that is not the purpose of
the present sketch, which does not mean to prove things, but simply to notice
them. Still, a couple of brief
ink-tracings from the thumbnail, to demonstrate that the thing might be made to
George Orwell, no sentimentalist, in his penetrating – even
steely-eyed – essay on Dickens, says of that novelist’s characters:
They are monsters,
but at any rate they exist.
(Emphasis in original.) One could say much the same thing about: Fermat primes; Julius Caesar; our
fellow-men, as (mis)perceived and (mis)conceived by ourselves. The World of Dickens, aptly so called,
is as rich a shared environment
as is this living-room.
True, you and I know different parts of that world, and react to them
differently; but so do any husband and wife react differently to their
living-room, some aspects being prominent for one that are effectively
invisible to the other. (Our own,
I suppose, has drapes, though I couldn’t say for sure, and have no idea what
they look like.)
The Idea acquires bite when one realizes that not only a
master like Dickens can create an encompassing work of fiction. One can oneself; and the work in
question is one’s literal life, considered subjectively as lived, rather
than as in your obituary. Here I
don’t mean to allude to the lives of imposters or anything of the sort. The idea is that one’s own life is
structured – eventually, consciously
structured – as a narrative. (Sometimes
I fantasize I work at a super-secret all-knowing mathematico-linguistical Organization; sometimes it seems so real.) At the extreme, this can lead to Walter
Mitty, who is not widely admired, though he is better to be envied than, say,
Bartleby the Scrivener, with no shaping self-narrative at all.
examples of this sort of thing include lives that are shaped and directed by
one transcendent and magnetic lodestar – say, to become King of the Blues. Many Christians have led lives
structured at every step by their own perceived progress towards
Salvation; they still show up at
their day job, and remember to buy bread on the way home, but all this is but
bunting around the central stage of their lived drama. We may even allude to a sort of
reverse of Walter Mitty (an ordinary man with fantasies of heroism and
adventure): Superman. In (his) reality, he was
Superman; yet felt it necessary to structure his existence by the adoption of
an entire, quite hazardous and very time-consuming, alternate identity as that
Everyschlump, Clark Kent.
"What is that streaking 'cross the evening sky?" "It's a bird!" "It's Balloon Boy!" "It's the HI-I-IGGS BOSON !!!"
earlier post, I commented on the debased public presentation of physics,
comparable to the way in which Natural History is reduced to giant colored
plastic dinosaurs (with or without Adam&Eve in the diorama, according to
Do please note: the epithet "porn" is
hurled, not at the content, but at the presentation. As Edward Wilson
lamented (in Consilience, p. 268), concerning Americans' attitude
They don’t understand it, they
prefer science fiction, they take fantasy and pseudoscience like stimulants to
jolt their cerebral pleasure centers.
Even more trenchantly, Richard Dawkins, in his essay
“Drawing Room of Dukes”:
‘Science Weeks’ and ‘Science
Fortnights’ betray an anxiety among scientists to be loved. Funny
hats and larky voices proclaim that science is fun, fun, fun.
(Having once myself attempted to scale the heights of
science, with indifferent success, I can rather attest, that it is hard,
hard, hard -- and gets unbelievably harder as you approach the summits.)
With Dawkins, then: “I am attacking only the kind of populistwhoring that defiles the wonder of science.” By no
means are the barbs aimed at science, nor at haute vulgarisation.
~ ~ ~
The other day, a most useful site, aldaily.com, which links to articles of especial interest from around the globe (though only in English), saw fit to link to this one:
'God particle' may be discovered soon
No, don’t bother to click -- spare your forefinger. The brief wisp of an article announces, not any actual development, but a hope or anticipation of a possible eventual development, namely the ‘discovery’ (something of a misnomer; see below) of the freaking Higgs boson. (Somehow I can never resist calling it that. Might as well re-dub it the FHB.) Such an anticipation has been in the news for many, many years, and has grown mold.
We now return you to your regularly scheduled essay.
* * *
For those (chiefly children and Pacific Islanders) who have not yet heard of the marvelous (though possibly non-existent, anyhow completely unobserved) FHB, the article explains:
It has been called the “God particle” or the “stuff that makes stuff stuff” as, without it, there is a mystery as to how objects get their mass.
Don’t misunderstand -- it will be very nice if they do ‘discover’ the Higgs boson, since particle physics is rather a mess, and needs all the help it can get. It would be like filling in a gap in the periodic chart of the elements. But how would it be more than that? True, there is a mystery as to how objects get their mass. But at that level, there is a mystery, how Time got its start, or Why is there something rather than nothing. At this level, such questions are fundamentally unanswerable: we have hit rock bottom, our spade is turned.
Still, there is much that can usefully be done. Thus, Newton did not discover the fact of gravitational attraction, let alone explain how it came to be -- as he well knew. What he did was posit a precise formula -- the inverse-square law -- which, when you do the math (and he had to invent much of the math) turns out to fit precisely the observed orbits of the planets, as well as the behavior of falling apples. This was a formal tour de force, and was of philosophical significance as well, as uniting the supralunary and sublunary spheres, traditionally thought to obey quite different laws.
Now, there are two basic ways in which some new constuct, like the FHB, might be desirable.
One, like Newton’s Universal Gravitation, it might be illuminating, in that it would formally unite gravity with something else, which is the goal of the Theory of Everything. But in that case, it would seem, the intellectual work has already been done: someone has calculated that, given a particle of such&such particulars, it would be a key that would fit both locks. And that might constitute a conceptual tour de force, only -- the actual ‘discovery’ of the particle is philosophically an anticlimax: it would not be really a discovery, the way penicillin or X-rays or the Cosmic Microwave Background -- previously unsuspected -- were discovered. It would simply mean that the already-largely-understood particle was finally physically spotted -- the way the positron was spotted, after Dirac had predicted its characteristics with math.
[Update 23 April 2012] Thus indeed now Steven Weinberg: "The discovery of the Higgs boson would be a gratifying verification of present theory, but it will not point the way to a more comprehensive future theory. We can hope, as was the case with the Bevatron, that the most exciting thing to be discovered at the LHC will be something quite unexpected. Whatever it is, it’s hard to see how it could take us all the way to a final theory, including gravitation." http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2012/may/10/crisis-big-science/?pagination=false&printpage=true
Unfortunately, this happy scenario may not be the case. Rather, we may be faced with Case Two: the particle is needed, not because, like the calculus and the working out of the consequences of the inverse square laws, it is a key that opens many doors; but only because, for purely formal reasons, without it, you’re screwed. Such is the picture as presented in Wikipedia:
The existence of the particle is postulated as a means of resolving inconsistencies in current theoretical physics …
In other words, the Standard Theory is sweating beneath the auditor’s eyeshaded gaze, “We seem to have uncovered certain inconsistencies in your physicofinancial statements…”, and the hope is that adding yet one more creature to the Particle Zoo will stave off the day of reckoning for a time.
Okay, so: a non-story, at many levels. Why, then, did a well-informed site like aldaily choose to link to it, rather than to any of a number of substantive scientific articles for a lay audience? (For examples, see any issue of the excellent AmericanScientist.) The answer is obvious: the tawdry misinvocation of the Deity in that misbegotten amelus of a nickname, “the God particle”, which manages to degrade comprehension of both science and religion at one go.
[update 19 IV 11:] aldaily has now promoted that piece of tripe to its coveted "nota bene" section. [update 21 IV 11:] Ah, just what we needed: toss in the much-battered metaphor of the Holy Grail (now decapitalized and pluralized): http://www.financialexpress.com/news/physics-and-the-search-for-the-holy-grails/779476/0
[update 26 IV 11:] As we anticipated.... "Nevvah mi-ind..." And so the media once again climbs down from its puffed-up non-event. But meanwhile they have sold some more newspapers, and John Q. Citizen can feel that he has kept "up-to-date" with Science.
[update 28 IV 11] As an antidote to all this, see the current New Yorker for some excellent physics reportage. The subject -- quantum computation and Many Worlds -- is difficult to approach without falling into mystification or gee-whiz, but reporter Rivka Galchen manages nicely.
We now return you to
your regularly scheduled essay.
[update 14 VIII 11]
More digs at Higgs
The FHB is beginning seriously to get on my tits. Now this:
To More, the usual concept of empty space was meaningless because space is always filled with divine spirit. To us, the usual concept of empty space may be similarly elusive, since the empty space we’re privy to may always be filled with an ocean of Higgs field.
-- Brian Greene, The Fabric of the Cosmos (2004), p. 270
Ergo, a new Paternoster, for the Physics-Porn crowd:
Our Particle, who art in Aether,
Shallow be thy name …
[update 24 VIII 11] The alarming possibility just occurred to me, that this post might be misconstrued as dissing physics popularization as a genre, as a whole. Not at all ! There are several quite excellent books. Heading the list would be the brief and very readable title by Richard Feynman, The Character of Physical Law (1965).
During apprenticeship, most scientists somehow absorb the necessary pragmatic attitude, and then go about their business quite successfully, content to leave it to a small handful to become interested in epistemology.
-- Gerald Holton, The scientific imagination (1978), p. 84
At first glance, “the Importance of Epistemology” would seem scarcely to qualify as an Idea. It would seem rather to be simply Sage Advice, like “the importance of Education” or even “the importance of flossing”. So let us motivate this.
In fact, it is not so easy to complete “the importance of…” with anything incontrovertible. I have (with reluctance, having long been its beneficiary, but in company with many another seasoned observer, such as Bertrand Russell) actually come to minimise the importance of education in the usual sense of formal instruction; and as for flossing, it was never an idea in the first place, but merely something we were told, and which could in principle turn out (Woody-Allen “Sleeper”-fashion) to be (What was our surprise!) a Very Bad Thing, carcinogenic to the gums. My conviction as to the importance of epistemology is, by contrast, hard-won, and at this point it is difficult to conceive what further evidence could come in to suggest that epistemology is not so important after all. (Yes, I have read the philosophical tracts that proclaim epistemology to be dead; these are useful principally as toilet-paper.)
In detail: At some point in one’s life, one discovers something which “everybody” believed – and hence, which everybody “just knew” -- , only “everybody” was mistaken. (Mark Twain gives a homely example in his Autobiography. In his day, apparently, it was common wisdom that water would rot the scalp. He was a contrarian in washing his hair. More dignified illustrations, though of no greater philosophical weight, could be drawn from the history of physics.) From this rude shock, there are various possible paths. The one settles into a self-short-circuiting complacency, whereby the “conventional wisdom” is ipso nomine scoffed at. Another becomes very concerned about the status of our beliefs, as one might be concerned for a patient in critical condition.
After extended probing, one learns (what is not surprising, after the initial shock) that a great many of our beliefs rest upon the slenderest of evidence; and that others – here things begin to get interesting – are supported by an intricate web of reasons/assertions/assumptions/precedents/axioms and so forth, composed of strands of varying diameter and tensile strength, which it is well-nigh impossible to untangle. If one is fortunate enough to read Quine, or (yet more blessed) to think independently along Quine’s lines, one is obliged to entertain the notion that even what had passed as “analytic” is not sheltered from ultimate revision. So that, what previously would have seemed a point (as in “data-point” or “my point exactly”) in a just-the-facts-ma’am (so to speak) epistemologically-Euclidean space, now comes embedded in a curve, or an intersecting collection of curves, each with their tangents, and tangent spaces, and tangent bundles and cotangent bundles and what-all else… It is hard enough to rebuild one’s ship in mid-voyage; we have actually to learn shipbuilding as we go along.