Concrete Science Epiphanies

April 9, 2014

The title is a kinda cultural reference to Musique Concrete, don’t you know. Maybe should be read in French.  Sea-onss kon-krett. Pretentious, Moi?

Anyhoo. I have always loved that moment when Jane Public looks through a real telescope and sees the rings of Saturn. Suddenly its real. Not on TV. Seen with her own eyes. There is a physical context. She had to walk up some stairs to the roof, queue up, bend at an awkward angle, and squint. Mental processing is good, but physicality is also good. It helps the scientific understanding, and it has a separate cultural impact which has its own importance. Its a kind of epiphany, an awakening.

I encountered two more such epiphanies yesterday. Here in Edinbrr its Science Festival time. (In Edinburgh, if you miss a Festival, don’t worry. There will be another one along in a minute.)  During the day I donned my STFC tee-shirt and helped out at the STFC roadshow, Seeing The Universe In All Its Light. This has all sorts of groovy things, but the bit I loved best is dead simple. We had a bunch of TV remote controls and pointed them at people’s camera phones. You can see the IR beam, which you can’t see with your naked eye. People almost gasp. There are invisible things in the Universe, but they are really there. You don’t need a million pound device. I can see it with with my own phone.

Wind forward to the evening, where I was part of the SCART Connection, a strange event that presented the results of pairing up scientists from the School of Physics and Astronomy with artists from the Edinburgh College of Art to see what they would come up with. This involved microscopic pictures of sludge crystals, sculptures of Ice-2,  Fibonacci spirals, a social soundscape project, and yours truly pontificating about cosmic violence to the accompaniment of electronic music by a local composer.  All very weird and wonderful. One thing that struck me was people’s reactions to a movie of those tiny sludge crystals. You could see them jiggling – Brownian motion in action. When told that this was caused by buffeting by atoms, their eyes bulged. Atoms? I can see them in a movie made by a guy from the Art College? Wooaahh.

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Happy Wesak Day

May 28, 2010

I just agreed as usual to do the facepainting at the primary school fair. I love doing this, and the fact that I am ok at it intrigues me, because I have always been crap at art. I need to get to the bottom of thoughts about Art, Science, Academia, and Buddhism. Yes I know I should be writing a blog post about the new Government’s attitude to space, but just bear with me.

I have sometimes been caught up in academic debates about “bridging the gap between art and science'”. I’ve never seen the issue. My impression is that artists and scientists instinctively get on, each recognising that the others are engaged in creative work. We tend to be mutually in awe. I watch my daughter with a paint brush; a flick of the hand and something magical and evocative appears. How does she do that ? Likewise, artists I know gawp at our mathematical skill, and the ability to conjure up exotic ideas – black holes, the ambiguity of time and space. So there is difference but respect. If anything, the sneering cultural gap is between both of us and the “humanities”, disputatious folk who do not create but who analyse, recycle, and judge ideas.

So what joins Art and Science is creativity, and an instinct that the most important thing in life is to seek truth. There is however something that profoundly divides science and the graphic arts. Why did I manage face painting when I am so awful at drawing ? I think the answer was that I didn’t try to be creative. I just took some examples and copied them. My arty friends said “Well of course. Anybody can draw. You intellectuals just mess it up because you are always trying to draw the idea in your head. Just open your eyes and draw what you can see. Easy.”

Cue mysticism. The aim of meditation is the removal of desire, and the removal of illusion. The reason many people misunderstand mysticism is the assumption that the idea is to reach some deep, mysterious, weird and foggy world. In fact the point is to strip out of our heads the pictures that we force onto our sense data, and just see the world as it is. Like an artist.

So thats a very appealing idea, from both an artistic point of view and from a spiritual point of view. Wow ! Do you mean I can get spiritual insight without having to believe in gods and monsters and the book and all that crap ? Where do I sign ?

But it still leaves a scientist uncomfortable. Those pictures of the world – those theories – are explanatory frameworks. They are why we are doing this. We want to explain, not just reflect. Of course we have to make sure we don’t get dogmatically attached to our theories. If they disagree with the facts, we chuck ’em out and get new ones. That process of sceptically converging on explanations, is what science is. Its not Art. Its not Academic Disputation. Its not Buddhism. Its a method for finding truth..

Mind you, reading the astronomical literature, you get a strong sense of how tangled up we are in the current fashions, how every set of “facts” is seen through a theoretical filter. That organised scepticism thing is really hard. How do we open the doors of perception ?

Happy Wesak Day.


Yo-Yo Ma makes us late for dinner

March 4, 2009

“Aaaaaggghhhhh”, said P-, “how I hate those humanities people ! I am so glad I did Physics !” What prompted this outburst was emerging from a three hour performance in a Harvard church, ravenously hungry and bad tempered. It was called “Witness” and billed as the contribution of the Harvard Humanities to this year’s celebration of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It sounded like it would be good – it featured Yo-Yo Ma, Toni Morrison, and the dancer Damian Woetzel. The trouble is it also featured a long sequence of Harvard Professors pontificating. For every three minutes of bliss with Yo-Yo you had to sit through seven minutes of somebody reading an essay in Hungarian, or blethering on about the “exigent materialities of our aspirational constructions”. Depressingly, even Toni Morrison was deathly dull. She read from her own work in a monotone, and added a twenty minute uninteresting reminiscence about the transcendent experience of watching slam poets perform in the Louvre. Morrison is a Saint of course, so even though she spoke at about eight words a minute, one felt obliged to appear captivated.

It struck me that as scientists in Universities, we are both the academics and the practitioners, whereas in the humanities this is two different things. There are those that create and those that interpret. The interpreters are very clever and reside in ancient and prestigious institutions like Harvard. They feel important, and act like they are needed to validate what creative artists do. The truth is different. Creation is crucial to our wellbeing; those best at it are almost magical beings, and are justifiably adored. Humanities Professors are needed to teach our children, thank you very much, but otherwise add nothing of value. They think they are a priesthood, but really they are just spongers, making a living out of somebody else’s talent. As they are genuinely clever but have nothing interesting to say, hot air expands to fill the vacuum.

Provocative enough ?