Sunday, January 13, 2013

On Holst, and the benefit of uniformity

This afternoon, I took in a chamber orchestra performance of four pieces by British composers. Before the concert began, the man seated next to me mentioned to his companion that the orchestra always reminded him of funerals - everyone dressed in black, with dark, heavy curtains draped around the stage as if at a wake*. I was surprised by this admission, actually, because to me, the pageantry is obvious; the purpose of the dark clothing and darkened stage boundaries is to allow the performers to fade into the background, and the music to take center stage instead.
The conformity - or uniformity - of the orchestra serves this purpose. Not only must they all dress alike (so much so that entire clothing companies exist solely to provide "concert black" - imagine if one cellist was wearing really dark blue instead), but they must even behave alike, bowing together and in time. One or two musicians from a section who are out of sync with the rest cause us to wonder if they are capable players; if everyone in the orchestra "did their own thing," it would be horribly distracting, and we would be unable to appreciate the music itself.
So there are, in fact, circumstances wherein conformity to a prescribed system is beneficial; there are instances where we must be willing to give up our individualism for the "greater good." In the case of the orchestra, it is the music; in the case of society, it is the betterment of human life. Of course, as soon as that system ceases to provide a net positive, it and its defined limits of conformity can be discarded. But we should not be disparaging of the system simply because it demands uniformity of its members.
Of course, it also helps when the "system" in question is Holst's St. Paul's Suite.

*The man seated next to me also indicated, rather matter-of-factly, to his companion that watching "a lot" of BBC America - Downton Abbey, presumably - makes one "an anglophile." So we musn't take his opinions too seriously.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Scientific Stereotype

Paul Dirac was once famously (though perhaps anecdotally) quoted as saying, "In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in the case of poetry it's the exact opposite!"
And we laugh, and perhaps picture Sheldon on Big Bang Theory saying something inanely similar.
Of course, we have a right to laugh, and I do not wish to sound as though I am a spoil-sport.

A little context to begin. The anecdote involving Dirac comes from the book Brighter Than a Thousand Suns: A Personal History of the Atomic Scientists by R. Jungk. The full story goes thusly:
Nearly all of the Americans who became well known later on for the development of atomic energy had been at Gottingen at various times between 1924 and 1932. They included Condon, who complained in lively fashion of the lack of comfort in the Gottingen lodgings; the lightning-brained Norbert Wiener; Brode, always deep in thought; the modest Richtmyer; the cheerful Pauling - one of Sommerfield's pupils, who often came over from Munich; and the amazing "Oppie," who managed to pursue in Gottingen not only his physical studies but also his philosophical, philological and literary hobbies. He was particularly deep into Dante's Inferno and in long evening walks along the railway tracks leading from the freight station would discuss with colleagues the reason why Dante had located the eternal quest in hell instead of in paradise.
One evening Paul Dirac, who was usually so silent, took Oppenheimer aside and gently reproached him. "I hear,' he said, 'that you write poetry as well as working at physics. How on earth can you do two such things at once? In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in the case of poetry it's the exact opposite!"
The difference between the two men could not be more pronounced.
At the Trinity test, which demonstrated the success of the first nuclear weapon in history and culminated the years of the secretive Manhattan Project, the well-read Oppenheimer would quote the Bhagavad Gita: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." He is often cited as having additionally thought of the verse: "If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one." (Incidentally, this second verse is where the Jungk book derives its name.)
Dirac, on the other hand, was "pathologically reticent, strangely literal-minded and almost completely unable to communicate or empathise."
Which of these two men should we wish to emulate? Which of these two has stayed true to the calling of humanity, that is, to be human?
And yet, Dirac often spoke of beauty, especially the beauty of mathematics. He went so far as to say that "getting beauty in one's equations" was a "sure line of progress," and that in fact he preferred the mathematical beauty to the "physical concepts" he "learnt to distrust." So he obviously understood the poetic impulse, if only on an unconscious level.

My point in relating this story is that, while we find the renowned social ineptitude and narrow focus of the scientist (specifically physicist) humorous, we must not be taken in by the lie. We must not be content to fall into that stereotype. We must not continue propagating this myth. On becoming scientists, we do not resign our titles as human beings.
It is to the detriment of both ourselves and the world if we, as scientists, fail to engage in other spheres of life. We have so much to gain from literature, music, art, nature, food, politics, economics, spirituality, philosophy... and life has much to gain from our involvement. We are all the more hypocrites if we focus only on science and yet demand that the rest of humankind accept our scientific views in addition to their own. If there is never any quid pro quo, then we will never be considered trustworthy. I do not mean to say that we should allow religious doctrine to steer scientific inquiry or that politics has a right to direct the topic of scientific study, but instead that we, as scientists and human beings, should at least understand that these different views exist. We should try our best to see the merit in any point of view, not degrade them simply because they differ, and we should be able to take a step back - out of science, if you will - to understand the context of our own view. Science is not all there is, and we scientists should not live as though it is.
All of us, scientist or not, will benefit from the poetic impulse as well as the scientific one.

Humorous as it is, I have to side with Oppie on this one.