Saturday, November 10, 2007

Getting to the Truth of the Matter

Demythologizing and Demystifying

These are two words that have long appealed to me. Some people, especially experts in their own fields, often like to baffle and befuddle others; to weave myths and spells in an attempt to convince others how much they, the experts, know and consequently how little we “the uninitiated” or “the unwashed” ignorant masses really know. I remember in UCD many years ago a certain “learned” mathematician, a professor no less, who shall remain anonymous, sought constantly to baffle, befuddle, befog, confound and mystify his hearers. He was teaching us complex analysis or fundamental analysis which is the foundational theoretical base of the calculus. I remember absolutely nothing of his course except how stupid I felt myself to be. I could not understand how I had managed to get through the first two years of my degree course in maths without considerable effort (though I had to work very hard at mathematics as I was not necessarily a natural mathematician, but I had managed to achieve honours at higher level in my Leaving Cert.) and now with this particular man I was confused, confounded, baffled, befuddled and mystified. Then one day, a good friend who was studying both Irish and Maths with me, one Lorcán Breatnach, informed me that Professor X was a deliberate mystifier. I have since become adept at identifying this not so rare species.

Over the course of my life I have attended four different colleges and have been lectured by many scholars. I have always found the best scholars to be the clearest. I might not have understood everything they said, but I always left their classes knowing more, not less; having had a little more light thrown on the subject and definitely not cast into the almost absolute darkness of confusion. As a child I was always overawed by teachers whom I worshipped almost as gods of sacred knowledge. Needless to say I ended up as one myself. Since then I could say that my awe of them has long since ceased. Teachers and teaching has, as it were, become demythologized and demystified. The intrigue and the magic have died as it were. I’m sure it is the same for every other profession. In like manner I have studied theology and have spent some three years many years ago as a student in religious life. Those years helped to demythologize and demystify the church and priests and religious of all hues. In other words, what we once thought of as special, magical, somehow wonderful states of being, or wonderful states of privileged knowledge have been rendered “ordinary” again. And, indeed, this is no harm. Let’s not put ourselves on pedestals. We are all ordinary mortals and no one of us has a privileged access to the truth or truths. As readers of these pages will attest, I prefer the plural to the overused and much abused singular use of the term “truth.”

Let me return momentarily to Mlodinow’s wonderful book again (i.e. Some Time with Feynman) which I discussed at length in my last post. Dr Leonard Mlodinow, neophyte member of the Faculty of Physics at Cal Tech also learns the above outlined lesson. Let us listen to his words here as they are timely as regards how we look upon knowledge and especially the “privileged” possessors of that knowledge: “People picture scientists in white coats. Physicists, at least, don’t wear them, but in a way, I subscribed to the same basic misconception: that scientists were somehow different from other people. I read about their theories in the tight logical development that comes only long after the fact. I knew nothing of their insecurities, their false starts, their confusion, their days in bed with bellyache. Even as a graduate student I never got to know any faculty members as people …everyone is just stumbling through the fog…” (op.cit., p.45) I love this last metaphor for our search for truths in what ever shape or form we find them. We are all truly stumbling around in a fog attempting to find our way. Well done, Dr. Mlodinow – or Tim Quinlan or whoever we are - welcome to the human race – poor fallible puny beings are we who set ourselves upon a pedestal, if not of divine power, certainly of scientific knowledge. After all knowledge is probably the real power in the world, or rather the real avenue to exercising it, at any rate.

In a way the whole gamut of enterprises – I refer here to the whole gamut of subjects taught in all the universities on our little planet - to find these so called “truths” is a compendium of games engaged in by human beings to make a better life for themselves and their kith and kin and in the final analysis to pass the time well and in so doing have a little fun without harming life in any of its myriad forms. We must seek to make our jobs our passion if at all possible. As Feynman remarked to the young Mlodinow about science as a career, “Remember, it’s supposed to be fun!” (0p. cit., p. 119) In other words, there’s never any room for mythologizers and mystifiers, those who seek constantly to baffle, befuddle, befog, confound and mystify rather than enlighten, inform, clarify and point out all the possible ways on the human journey through life.

Above I have uploaded a picture of Auguste Rodin's wonderful "Le Penseur" which I took last week when on my midterm holidays in Paris. La Musée Rodin is really well worth visiting!

Friday, November 09, 2007

Mlodinow and Feynman – Physicists look at a Theory of Knowledge (Epistemology)

1. Both share a humility of approach, Socrates-like, that is declare your ignorance first and proceed from there to discover by experience what is new for you and then see what general conclusions you can logically draw from there. Classically, St Augustine called this a “docta ignorantia” or a “learned ignorance!” I’m not so sure either of these scientists would like to keep company with St Augustine, but I’m sure they’d be comfortable bedfellows with Socrates.

2. Mlodinow describes Feynman’s office and personality thus: “The blackboards were covered with mathematics – mostly with Feynman diagrams like those he had invented in his youth. There was a desk, a couch, a coffee table, a couple of bookshelves. Nothing seemed opulent. Nothing indicated that he was one of the most famous and respected scientists of the twentieth century.” (Some Time With Feynman, p. 40)

3. The fraught question of Positivism: Positivism refers to the world given to observation. It goes back at least as far as Francis Bacon and the British Empiricist School of the 17th and 18th centuries – in other words what we see concretely is what exists and nothing else – it’s the world of observable data. Thereby this movement sought to sideline theology and metaphysics as meaningless. However, Modern Physics is indeed interesting in this regard insofar as we’re not too sure as to the “real” existence of what we “observe.” That’s because we have gone ever and ever more deeply into the micro-world of the atom. For example the Nobel Laureate Murray Gell-Mann proposed the existence of “sub-subnuclear particles” called “quarks” - a word he borrowed from our own James Joyce (Murray is a polymath and polyglot). Of course no one has ever “seen” an electron, proton or neutrons with the naked eye, much less a “quark” which is even smaller again and a constituent sub-entity within the protons and neutrons. We conclude they are there because of other evidences we see through electron microscopes and other such devices beyond my knowledge. Then, of course, we have the quandary which is for the most part insuperable, that we change what we observe by the very act of observing it – our modern equipment displaces a lot of what it seeks to observe – so cannot “really” observe it in “actuality” or “in the raw” as it were. Heisenberg's great "Uncertainty Principle" fits in here, I think! Therefore, positivism has to be transcended as we move into spheres of ever more sophisticated abstractions. It’s almost as if metaphysics is getting its own back by forcing us to theorize and philosophize what can’t be truly observed. Does something exist if we cannot observe it? Modern physics would suggest that such is the case.

4. There is a need for two approaches to science according to Mlodinow and Feynman namely the Greek Method (Method of tight theorem and proof based on accepted axioms) and the Babylonian Method (Pragmatic approach: something is true if it works in all possible situations, when it adequately describes a real situation or problem). Modern science needs both approaches.

5. “A lot of discoveries are like that, new ways of looking at old things, or old concepts…So I guess I learned something about the psychology of discovery.” (Feynman quoted by Mlodinow, op.cit., p. 38) Here Feynman has a lot in common with the “Lateral Thinking” approach advocated by Edward de Bono.

6. “The scientist analyzes something like a detective does…We are trying to figure out what nature is like from the clues given by experiments. We have the clues and we try to figure it out…” (Feynman quoted by M., op.cit., p. 42)

7. Here is Feynman on the physicist’s approach to thinking: “A scientist’s work is normal activities of humans carried out to a fault, in a much exaggerated form. Ordinary people don’t do it as often, or, as I do, think about the same problem everyday…Scientists, therefore, do something with an intensity that is out of the ordinary.” (Feynman quoted by M., op.cit., pp. 43-44)

8. For both Feynman and Mlodinow science is a love affair and the mistress is the problem that they are currently working on. (op.cit., passim). Passion and obsession are two other words that both use frequently about their pursuit of science.

9. Feynman was a total non-conformist in every way – surely a quality of a very original thinker. In other words such men and women are very courageous as they have to “plough their own lonely furrow.” That takes courage indeed!

10. Both are/were persistent in their research/work. They did not give up!

11. It’s most important that a scientist finds the right problem for him or her to work upon!

12. They both took/take great leaps of imagination, i.e., they think/thought outside the box!

13. You need to be able to believe in yourself, to follow your intuition with conviction and self-belief!

(To be continued.)

Above is a picture of Dr Leonard Mlodinow

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Scientific Lessons from Decent Men

Mixing It With Mlodinow

One of my favourite science writers, outside Feynman of course, is his one time colleague Leonard Mlodinow. I discovered the books of the latter through reading his wonderful memoir of his professional time spent with the great genius, professor and Nobel Laureate. This marvellous little book, which I picked up remaindered in Hodges Figgis some years back, is called simply Some Time With Feynman (Allen Lane, 2003). Dr Mlodinow was a member of the faculty of the California Institute of Technology (the famous Cal Tech) before he moved to Hollywood to become a writer for the acclaimed series Star Trek: The Next Generation. He is also author of the wonderful and passionate little book called Euclid’s Window, a popular history of geometry and its role in physics. I hope too review this book in these pages some time later.

Again one of the exciting things about this book is the personality of Richard P. Feynman which shines through for its brilliance, humility, honesty, contrariness (at times), sheer lack of sycophancy, frankness to the point of not sparing the truth which is so often harsh on its hearers (especially if they are truth-avoiders) and his sheer sense of fun in both his professional and private lives. In this wonderful memoir we meet the young Mlodinow who is obviously awe-struck as a neophyte faculty man having just earned his Ph. D. in physics from Berkeley. He simply worships the great and eccentric Feynman. He tells us that he learned much from the canny Professor – not alone about physics, science in general, but also about life itself. He tells us that from Feynman he “discovered a new approach to life.” (op.cit., p xiii) As a young student he had always found the Nobel Laureates physics books “chatty” and “amusing.” (ibid., p.10)

Leonard Mlodinow was privileged to see Feynman’s love of his subject and his sheer love of discovery which was always childlike (op. cit., passim). Feynman’s approach to physics and to life impressed the young physicist because he had “seen too many adults work too many hours at jobs they did not like in order to amass things they only thought they needed, and then, decades later, regret their “wasted” years…” (ibid., p. 13)

Mlodinow is excellent on the rivalry between the two great physicists Murray Gell-Mann and Richard P Feynman, both of whom showed a grudging respect for the other, but who followed different lines of enquiry in their chosen field of Theoretical Physics. I learned much from Mlodinow as regards Feynman’s philosophy of science or his general approach. Let’s let Leonard speak here because what he says is so clear and succinct that I could not possibly better it:

“Feynman used to say that there were two kinds of Physicists, the Babylonians and the Greeks. He was referring to the opposing philosophies of those ancient civilizations. The Babylonians made western civilization’s first great strides in understanding numbers and equations, and in geometry. Yet it was the later Greeks – in particular Thales, Pythagoras, and Euclid – whom we credit with inventing Mathematics. This is because the Babylonians cared only whether or not a method of calculation worked – that is, adequately described a real physical situation – and not whether it was exact, or fit (sic) into any greater logical system. Thales and his Greek followers, on the other hand, invented the idea of theorem and proof – and required that for a statement to be considered through, it had to be an exact logical consequence of a system of explicitly stated axioms or assumptions. To put it simply, the Babylonians focused on phenomena, the Greeks on the underlying order.” (ibid., pp. 24-25)

Feynman considered himself a Babylonian and Murray Gell-Mann a Greek. The Greek and Babylonian while they were often at loggerheads in arguments had a grudging respect for each other.

(To be continued)

We all work for the promotion of human decency and human respect. Call it human rights if you wish. Above I have posted a picture of some Falung Gong people which I took in town December 2006. They work for the promotion of human dignity for those who are tortured for their beliefs in modern China!

Human Decency

His/Her Sheer Humanity Makes Me Love Him/Her

When I feel I’m becoming even the slightest bit depressed or downcast in anyway I find myself lifted up by the smallest acts of human kindness. As I was returning from Paris some few days ago, a little boy of perhaps about 10 years sat between me (I was seated at the window as is my wont when I travel by plane) and a young French man. The little boy took many minutes to settle himself as his parents were scattered here and there on the aircraft as they boarded last. Eventually when he had got himself settled he was profuse in his thanks to the young French man whom he had to disturb quite a few times in his settling down. Le Français and I exchanged knowing smiles at the boy’s innocence and friendliness. Later in the flight he offered both of us some water from his bottle. I thought to myself what a lovely human being and how mannerly for a little boy. I assumed when I saw the parents who were somewhat older adults that he must be the last of a longer line of siblings – in so far as the young boy was quite used to being with adults. Anyway I find such little acts of kindness both disarming and uplifting.

I have mentioned before in these pages that I love the popular writings of Richard P. Feynman the famous American Nobel Laureate in Physics. (Obviously I could not possibly understand any of his technical writings, not being very competent in physics!) However, I have some three books by him – all in the area of popular science and biography (his collected letters). The sheer humanity of Richard P Feynman shines through continually. I return often to my own heavily annotated copy of his letters to cheer and lift me up. A letter Richard P. wrote to a former Ph. D. student of his at Cal Tech, one Koichi Mano is worth studying in depth on the curriculum of any Pedagogy course. I’ll quote the final paragraph which more than captures Feynman’s sheer humanity and the tenor of the whole letter:

“You say you are a nameless man. You are not to your wife and to your child. You will not long remain so to your immediate colleagues if you can answer their simple questions when they come to your office. You are not nameless to me. Do not remain nameless to yourself – it is too sad a way to be. Know your place in the world and evaluate yourself fairly, not in terms of the naïve ideals of your own youth, nor in terms of what you erroneously imagine your teacher’s ideals are.” (Don’t You Have Time To Think? Penguin, 2005, p. 201).

In another letter to a friend, Arnold Phillips, who had written to congratulate him on his award of the Nobel Prize for Physics, he gives this wonderful piece of advice to him on his son’s academic results: “Do not be too mad at Mike for his C in Physics. I got a C in English. Maybe I would never have received a prize in Physics if I had been better in English.” (ibid., p. 185)

I could go on and on with such examples from the letters of Richard P. Feynman. However, the length of this piece and the time constraints pressing must call a halt to my gallop as it were. I will finish with a simple matter of good manners and good service which I and my friend’s wife, Isa, were recipients of in a restaurant in Dun Laoghaire last Friday. For the first time in many months, if not years, I found myself noticing the absolute manners, good care and pride in his job shown by a young English waiter. I simply had to thank him for such excellent, sincere, honest, careful and indeed caring service. The young man obviously loved his job and sought to do his very best by treating his customers well. Anyway, needless to say, we tipped him as well as we could - which is beside the point. The really sad thing I feel is that we are now becoming astounded when we witness normal decency and pure honest-to-goodness humanity! This surely is the sad point about life today, is it not?

Above I have uploaded a picture I took of two boys playing football on a perdestrian street in Nicastro, Calabria, July 2007.